ANNAPOLIS — After more than an hour of passionate and sometimes personal debate, the Maryland House of Delegates voted 74-66 to approve a bill that allows patients with terminal illnesses to seek life-ending medication.
The vote, which divided both parties, was “a remarkable moment,” said its sponsor, Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, D-Howard.
“Everyone is one bad death away from supporting this bill,” said Pendergrass. “In five years, people have seen people they love suffer and die, and they wanted to be able to help and were powerless because this option was not available. Nobody wants to see people they love suffer.”
Similar legislation was previously introduced in 2015, 2016 and 2017, where it was rejected by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Under the bill, doctors would be allowed to prescribe a fatal dose of drugs to terminally ill patients who have less than six months to live. The patients must be able to take the medications on their own.
Additionally, the patient must make at least three requests for the drugs, including once in writing.
The hour-long debate frequently touched on personal stories from both supporters and opponents.
Two delegates told stories of their mothers dying from cancer and how it affected their decision on whether to support the bill.
Del. Michael Jackson, D-Prince George’s, lost his mother two years ago on his birthday as the result of breast cancer.
“Not once did me or my siblings even consider putting her out her misery. Not once,” said Jackson. “Never once did I think I would be part of a body that would consider such a thing. I don’t believe it is my right to infringe my thoughts on someone in that time of need.”
“I believe my savior suffered and died for me, and I don’t believe I have the right to skirt that moment in my life,” said Jackson.
Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery, said he understood concerns about the message such a bill sends about suicide.
“I think we all realize that this bill raises some pretty deep moral questions,” said Luedtke. “For me it’s been a very personal issue. Those of you that have served with me the last few years know that I have mental illness in my family. I have not one or two but three members of my family that have attempted suicide. I despise suicide.”
Luedtke opposed the bill for a number of years but that changed in 2014 when his mother was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The delegate said his mother, suffering and facing death, attempted to overdose on morphine just a few days before she ultimately died. The dose wasn’t enough to end her life but the doctor said, “If she does this again you shouldn’t bring her in, it’s so close to the end.”
“This bill isn’t the government putting the finger on the scales,” Luedtke said, responding to concerns that state sanctioning of suicide was bad public policy and would lead to patients choosing the option to spare their families financial and emotional burdens. “It’s government taking its finger off the scale.”
A number of lawmakers questioned the law on the basis of their own religious beliefs.
“We are overstepping our bounds,” said Del. Jay Walker, D-Prince George’s.
Others rejected that argument.
“It’s my personal belief that, regardless of the mechanism, death is always in God’s time,” said Del. Teri Hill, D-Howard and a physician who voted for the bill.
The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.
Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery and sponsor of an identical bill in the Senate, praised the vote and said he believes there are votes in his chamber to pass the bill.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has previously said he struggles with the bill and has not yet said publicly if he would veto it.
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.
“Today’s vote by the House of Delegates confirms what we already knew — that physician-assisted suicide is not a partisan issue and those who are concerned about the health disparity and economic discrimination issues raised by the bill stand in strong opposition to its passage,” said Jennifer Briemann, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. “Among those in opposition were a majority of the members of the Legislative Black Caucus and many members of Democratic House leadership, and we applaud their courage to stand up to the out-of-state interests pushing this predatory agenda.”