Assisted suicide advocates plead case for legalization in Maryland

February 21, 2016

The following article appeared in the Washington Times on February 21, 2016:

Kelly Lange suffers from stage 4 breast cancer and says she doesn’t want to die. But when the time comes, she wants it to be on her own terms.

She was one of 76 witnesses who came to Annapolis to plead with lawmakers for that chance, asking the House of Delegates to approve assisted suicide legislation so that terminally ill residents can decide the time and the manner of their death.

“I am not afraid of dying, but I do not want to live in extreme pain,” Ms. Lange, 49, told a crowded joint hearing of the House Health & Government Operations Committee and the Judiciary Committee amid hours of heart-wrenching testimony Friday.

Assisted suicide is legal in five states — Oregon, Washington, California, Vermont and Montana — and Delegate Shane Pendergrass said it’s time for Maryland to join them.

“I believe that it is right, morally right, to let people be in control of the ends of their lives when they have six months or less to live,” said Ms. Pendergrass, Howard County Democrat.

The General Assembly fought over this issue a year ago, when legislation died in committee amid lawmakers’ fears about the danger of an elderly person being coerced into suicide.

Ms. Pendergrass said lawmakers have tried to add safeguards to assisted suicide, including requiring doctors to meet with patients one on one to ensure patients’ desires. The state also must keep records on how many patients opt to die of their own decision.

The End of Life Option Act is sponsored by Ms. Pendergrass. It would allow only adults who have less than six months to live and are mentally competent to make the decision for themselves to take advantage of the law. Those patients also would need to be physically capable of administering the fatal dose of medication themselves.

Katie Collins-Ihrke, executive director of the Center for Independent Living, said the measure would send the wrong message to disabled people when terminally ill patients choose to end their lives because they lose autonomy.

“Disability is stigmatized. If we’re saying that loss of autonomy is a reason to not live anymore, what are we saying to people with disabilities? That they can’t have a quality of life?” Ms. Collins-Ihrke said. “I think the underlying statement to this is detrimental to the disability rights movement.”

In Oregon, 92 percent of patients who opted to end their lives cited losing autonomy as their primary concern. Inability to deal with pain was sixth on the list, according to Oregon’s Public Health Division.

Arc of Maryland and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene submitted testimony saying the bill would leave disabled people open to abuse by caregivers or doctors.

The Catholic Church objected that the bill would violate the sanctity of life, but the United Church of Christ wrote that quality of life is just as important as being alive.

Doctors also are split. Some say assisting suicide is OK, and others deem it a violation of their Hippocratic oath to do no harm.

Delegate John Cluster, Baltimore County Republican, expressed concern that people in pain, given the choice, might opt for suicide prematurely. He noted that his mother-in-law was expected to have only months to live in 2011.

“I’m pretty sure because she was in pain, she would probably have taken this option,” Mr. Cluster said. “How do I explain to my grandkids, to her daughter, who is my wife, ‘You know what? The doctors made a mistake. Your mom killed herself.’ But she’s still alive, five years later.”

Ms. Lange noted the strength of the bill’s safeguards, such as requiring patients to meet with doctors three times before receiving a prescription. She has had metastatic breast cancer since 1999, and it has been at stage 4 for 13 years.

“I would like to have this option to ease my suffering as I face this prognosis. I don’t know if I would choose this option or not. I don’t know how much pain I’ll be in when I die, but it would be very comforting to know that this option is available to me,” she told The Washington Times.

Kim Callinan of Compassion & Choices, which advocates for assisted suicide, said desperate patients may try to kill themselves without a doctor’s aid, scarring their families.

“Aiding dying brings families together,” Ms. Callinan said. “Suicide tears families apart.”

Maryland’s legislation is modeled after Oregon’s system. Since its implementation in 1998, 1,545 patients have requested prescriptions to take their lives, and 991 carried through with it. In 2015, 218 Oregonians requested prescriptions and 132 used it.

Disability Rights Oregon said in a letter that it has never received a complaint of “exploitation or coercion of an individual with disabilities.”

California, Vermont, Washington and Montana have similar laws; New Mexico is appealing a court decision blocking its assisted suicide law.

In Maryland, the measure has bipartisan support. Delegate Chris West, Baltimore County Republican, shared the story of his mother-in-law dying in “agony” from acute emphysema.

“I wouldn’t wish a similar experience on anyone,” he said. “I believe that everyone is but one bad death away from supporting this bill. I have experienced my bad death.”

Compassion & Choices
Media Contacts

Sean Crowley
Media Relations Director
[email protected]

Patricia A. González-Portillo
National Latino Media Director
[email protected]
(323) 819 0310

Compassion & Choices
8156 S Wadsworth Blvd #E-162
Littleton, CO 80128

Mail contributions directly to:
Compassion & Choices Gift Processing Center
PO Box 485
Etna, NH 03750

VICTORY: Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed the improved End-of-Life Options Act.