The Washington Post
‘My body, my choice,’ argue advocates of aid-in-dying bill
Supporters of end-of-life legislation in Md. echo abortion rights activists
Lorrie Rogers and three girlfriends walked into the Maryland Senate office building with a concise message for nearly two dozen state legislators whose names were typed on Rogers’s clipboard: “My body, my choice.”
The women weren’t protesting the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which scrapped the constitutional right to an abortion. Instead, the residents of a senior living facility in Prince George’s County were lobbying for the option to legally end their own lives.
If a lawmaker supports a woman’s right to end a pregnancy, they say, the same logic should apply to a terminally ill patient’s right to end his or her own suffering.
“It’s a choice issue,” said Rogers, 83. “My body, my life, my death, my choice.”
In a state where lawmakers want to become a national model in protecting a woman’s right to an abortion, advocates of aid in dying are reframing their argument in their fight for the bill’s passage, asserting that bodily autonomy should be viewed no differently at the beginning of life than it is at the end of it.
It’s a new approach in a long-standing campaign to give terminally ill patients the legal option to end their lives in Maryland, a left-leaning state and one of the first in the country to abolish the death penalty and legalize same-sex marriage. A similar strategy is underway in New York and Connecticut, where advocates pushing to align arguments for abortion and end-of-life rights are hoping to replicate the nation’s first aid-in-dying bill, passed in Oregon in 1997. The argument has led to some uncomfortable conversations in Maryland.
Legislative leaders of the state, which has deep Catholic roots and a large Black population (two groups that historically have not embraced the concept), have
never whipped votes on aid in dying. For years, the bill never received a committee vote. Its one appearance on the floor of both chambers ended in a tie vote. And now, lawmakers warn it could face head winds again as the legislature weighs how many issues to undertake in the final weeks of the 90-day session.
Undeterred and armed with a detailed chart of lawmakers’ voting records on abortion and on aid in dying, Rogers and her silver-haired friends, one using a walker, concentrated their efforts on those who voted against a 2019 bill that would allow doctors in Maryland to prescribe a lethal dose of medicine to terminally ill patients who want to end their lives but who voted for last year’s measure to expand access to abortions by allowing midwives, physician assistants and others to perform the procedures.
Advocates are emboldened not only by their argument regarding bodily autonomy but also by a new governor, Wes Moore (D), who has said publicly that people should be able to make their own decisions about their suffering.
“I think it’s something that we as a society, we as a state, have to make sure that we are protecting that ability for people to make those clear mind, clear heart, independent decisions about the suffering that they are enduring and the suffering that their family members are watching them go through,” Moore said in January at a forum, adding that he has witnessed suffering at the end of life in his own family.
The measure has been introduced for most of the past eight years, and though it has passed the House of Delegates, an even more modest version failed in the Senate, unusually getting voted down after an emotional floor debate in 2019.
The more conservative Senate remains the initiative’s biggest obstacle, even as advocates have reframed the debate. The measure is slated to be heard in committee this week.
An “issue of conscience” is how state Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (DMontgomery), the bill’s lead Senate sponsor, described the proposal to allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who want to end their lives. He has drawn the connections about bodily autonomy with colleagues in oneon-one talks after the Supreme Court decision and found many to be receptive, he said.
“I’ve been emphasizing it not as a function of messaging but truly as a function of what is at risk,” Waldstreicher said.
Donna Smith, the campaign director for Compassion & Choices Action Network in Maryland, said many people who had fought for the bill since 2015 have died. “If you are in support of abortion because of bodily autonomy issues, I don’t see how you could not be in support of this,” she said. “All these people at the end of life have to go through a number of hoops to ensure that this is their choice and they’re making this independent decision, and that’s not required of women getting abortions.”
Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-baltimore City) questioned whether the chamber would expend the emotional and political capital to advance an end-of-life bill this year, partly because he doesn’t believe his caucus wants to.
“It is very much an art and not a science and trying to get a feel for what people are willing to take on and how many big issues we can take up,” said Ferguson, who said he was only partially swayed by the argument that end-of-life decisions are analogous to abortion rights.
“In both cases, there’s sort of the nature of an irrevocable decision,” he said. “There are questions around viability in abortion that I think are important scientific questions about, ‘When does life begin?’ We know with death with dignity, it is a human life. And it is somebody that’s living that’s making a choice for themselves.”
Gallup found in May that 55 percent of Americans thought doctor-assisted suicide was “morally acceptable,” while 41 percent said it was “morally wrong.”
In the House, lawmakers are far more confident they would corral the votes to get it passed.
“We have been educating legislators on this bill for the past eight years and have built up solid support,” said Del. Joseline A. Peña-melnyk (D-prince George’s), chairwoman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee. “Now is the time for this long-overdue compassionate legislation.”
Peña-melnyk, who is the bill’s lead sponsor in the House, said advocates’ linking of abortion and aid in dying as questions of bodily autonomy “makes sense.”
“You are making a personal decision about your own quality of life, and no one should have the ability to exert control of your body during pregnancy or at the end of life,” she said. “We need to give terminal patients this option at the end of life, to die in peace, on their terms, when no other options to relieve unbearable suffering are available.”
For two days last month, Dan Diaz wandered around the State House complex holding a copy of a 2014 People magazine that featured his late wife, Brittany Maynard, on its cover and an ipad with images of the tumor that had invaded Maynard’s brain.
Maynard became the face of the aid-in-dying movement more than a decade ago when she moved from her California home to Oregon, a state where she could end her own life legally at age 29.
Since then, Diaz said, he has traveled to 18 state capitols advocating the passage of end-of-life bills similar to Oregon’s law. D.C. and 10 states, including New Jersey, California and Colorado, have medical aid-in-dying laws.
In Annapolis, he met Moore in the hallway of the House building. Diaz introduced himself and quickly told him why he was there. His voice began to shake, Diaz said, and Moore stepped forward and embraced him, and told him to “keep doing what you’re doing. . . . It’s so important to the people of this state.”
During his visits, Diaz said he not only relayed the final months of Maynard’s life with lawmakers but also asked them to think of her as someone who didn’t have cancer but instead an ectopic pregnancy. He asked: What options should be available?
State Sen. Malcolm Augustine (D-prince George’s) recalled his meeting with Diaz. He empathized with him and said Maynard was fortunate to have the support of her family at the end of her life.
His concern, he said, is those who don’t have that kind of support, “the people who are alone, no family members, in a nursing home, and the nursing home decides that this person is better off if they are no longer living.”
He said the vulnerability of Black people in those situations “undergirds my position.” For them, he said, the bodily autonomy argument does not hold up because they don’t have a choice in the decision.
“These are two different matters altogether,” he said. “There is no connection for me. This is about people being taken advantage of.”
State Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-prince George’s) shared similar concerns but said he has evolved on the issue.
“I’m definitely more of a yes than a no,” said Muse, who voted against the bill in 2016. “As a pastor, I deal with it. I also have to look at that. I see them when they get to a point where I’m asking God to take them home because there is a suffering. So if I can ask God to do that, I’ve got to now kind of pull it together to see where is the middle ground.”
Rogers and her friends did not have any interactions with Augustine, Muse or any of the other senators on their list. Instead, they made their arguments last month with legislative staffers who said they would share the visits with the lawmakers.
“I think one of the most powerful aspects was the 60 or 70 of us in our yellow T-shirts wandering around the halls,” Rogers said of the volunteers who participated in Compassion & Choices Action Network lobby day. “I think that makes an impact, the actual calls on the offices and the chats with the staff. It’s something. It’s not nothing. I don’t think it’s very much, but I do think every little bit counts.”