ANNAPOLIS — Her body racked with pancreatic cancer, Annette Breiling’s mother informed her family one spring that she had decided to stop eating in hopes of accelerating the dying process.
But there would be 37 long days of fasting before her mother finally succeeded in bringing her life to an end.
“It was a horrible way to die,” said Breiling, of Ijamsville.
More than three decades later, she said, the memories of her mother’s suffering still bring tears to her eyes. And now, they are motivating her advocacy for an aid-in-dying proposal before the Maryland Legislature.
Breiling joined a small band of Frederick County residents who spent Wednesday seeking to persuade lawmakers to pass the legislation put forward by Sen. Ron Young, D-District 3, and Delegate Shane Pendergrass.
Young’s “death with dignity” act, patterned after Oregon’s law, would pave the way for terminally ill patients to secure lethal doses of medication from their physicians. The patient could then choose whether to take the medication.
“This bill will give people who have been given a prognosis of six months to live some control over the end of their lives,” said Pendergrass, D-Howard, during a Wednesday press conference. “They can’t stop the dying process. ... What they can do is have some control over when and how.”
Aid-in-dying proposals have gained new momentum through the advocacy work of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman who was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor and chose to end her life in Oregon last year. As a result, more than 30 states are introducing aid-in-dying bills this year, said Brandi Alexander, a regional campaign and outreach manager for the group Compassion and Choices.
A recent survey indicated that public support is behind the proposal. A Goucher poll released last week found that 60 percent of Maryland residents surveyed would support allowing terminally ill patients to secure lethal doses of medication from a willing doctor.
However, a coalition of religious and disability groups has formed against the legislation.
One objection to the proposal is that seriously ill patients would not receive the depression or suicide counseling that physicians would normally suggest, said Samantha Crane, director of public policy for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
“We are very concerned that physician-assisted suicide treats people with disabilities and illnesses as less worthy of interventions,” said Crane, whose group is one of those against Young’s bill.
The coalition also includes Not Dead Yet, the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Maryland Catholic Conference.
During Wednesday’s press conference, Pendergrass described numerous safeguards built into the bill. To qualify for aid in dying, patients must be competent adults who live in Maryland and are suffering from a disease likely to kill them within six months. Before a doctor could write the prescription, a patient would have to make three separate requests for it.
The patient would have to self-administer the medication. Doctors could decline to prescribe the lethal doses if they wish, Pendergrass said.
Pressuring a patient into requesting aid in dying would be considered a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, according to the proposal.
But Crane said these protections are by no means fail-safes. For instance, many people with a terminal illness end up living far beyond their initial prognosis.
“There is just no way for doctors to know that a person is going to die within six months,” Crane said.
Pendergrass said she is hopeful that the aid-in-dying proposal will succeed in the Legislature. It is unclear how Gov. Larry Hogan would respond to the bill’s passage; his spokeswoman on Wednesday indicated that the administration is tracking a number of bills, and Hogan will not express an opinion on them until “the appropriate time comes.”
However, in a candidate survey last year, Hogan told the Maryland Catholic Conference that he agrees with banning physician-assisted suicide and thinks “it should not be up to a doctor to assist patients in controlling the timing and manner of their death.”
Chris de Boinville, a Frederick resident who worked for three decades in hospice care, said he thinks patients should have more control over how they die.
“I think most human beings would like to be given the choice,” said de Boinville, who joined Breiling in Annapolis on Wednesday.