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Md. legislators bring back medically assisted suicide bill

Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, D-Howard, speaks during a rally to support her bill to allow medically assisted suicide. (Bryan P. Sears / The Daily Record)

Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, D-Howard, speaks during a rally to support her bill to allow medically assisted suicide. (Bryan P. Sears / The Daily Record)

Maryland legislators will try once again to pass a bill allowing terminally ill patients to end their own lives, legislation that has previously failed to advance within the General Assembly.

The End of Life Option Act would provide adults with less than six months to live the ability to get a prescription for medication that lets them die peacefully in their sleep if they decide their suffering is too great.

“This is the year it is going to happen,” Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, D-Howard, said at a rally in support of the bill Tuesday. “Every person is one bad death away from supporting this bill,” she added, quoting a supporter at the bill’s hearing in 2015.

Pendergrass sponsors the legislation in the House of Delegates, with Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery, leading the way in the Senate. The bill has attracted more than 60 co-sponsors across the two chambers. 

Eight states have legalized medically assisted suicide, including California, Colorado, Hawaii, Vermont and Washington, D.C., which passed their laws through legislation. Oregon and Washington state adopted their laws through ballot initiatives, and Montana’s came through a court decision.

But in Maryland, it has been tougher for the bill to gain traction. The legislation was first introduced by Pendergrass and Sen. Ron Young, D-Frederick, in 2015 and has gained a significant number of cosponsors in the past, but each year it was rejected in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The bill has an easier road in the House, where Pendergrass chairs the Health and Government Operations Committee that will hear the bill. But in the past, the committee did not advance the legislation after it was killed in the Senate.

The bill was not introduced last year.

The legislation’s supporters believe “safeguards” added to the bill will help address past concerns that kept the bill from passing.

Opposition to the bill has centered on the idea that some people could be taken advantage of and coerced into choosing to end their life.

“The legislature has rejected this legislation time and again,” Jennifer Briemann, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said. “I think it’s because they do realize that you cannot legislate the safeguards that are necessary for all of the vulnerable populations that were put at risk from this bill — the elderly, those suffering from mental health concerns, persons with disabilities, the list goes on.”

Previous versions of the bill have included requirements that an individual has to be an adult with the capacity to make a medical decision, the individual has to make three requests for a life-ending prescription and have two witnesses not related to the individual and who do not benefit from the death.

This year, the bill has added a requirement that the patient meets at least once individually with their physician.

Supporters hope that added element will help the bill attract more support, but it is unclear if that support will materialize.

“I don’t know if (the change) improved the chances of the bill,” Pendergrass said. “I think it improved the bill. …We’ve been listening. We’ve been trying to make it the strongest bill in the nation. And I think it is.”

But no members have told her that they plan to now support the bill because of the change, Pendergrass said. She also declined to say what House Speaker Michael Busch told her about the bill’s chances.

Supporters could look to attract the support of the legislature’s significant number of freshmen legislators.

Still, supporters believe they have the momentum and public opinion on their side. They came to Tuesday’s rally armed with polling numbers showing about two-thirds of Marylanders support medically assisted suicide. A Goucher poll, conducted in 2015, found about 60 percent of Marylanders supported the legislation.

Physicians have also evolved their position on the legislation. Several years ago MedChi, Maryland’s medical society, changed its position on the bill from oppose to neutral.

“I’m optimistic about this, the fourth time, being the charm this year,” Smith said. “We’ve got strong public support both in the nation and here in Maryland.”

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