ANNAPOLIS — The questions were sharp and came quickly Thursday evening in a Senate committee hearing to consider legislation to let terminally ill patients in Maryland end their lives by taking prescription drugs.
Sen. Ron Young, D-District 3, is sponsoring the Richard E. Israel and Roger “Pip” Moyer End of Life Option Act for the second time this year.
Thursday’s hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee — a notoriously inquisitive committee — started with a series of questions and answers between Young and committee member Sen. Michael Hough, R-District 4.
Young’s bill would let competent adults who live in Maryland and are suffering from a disease likely to kill them within six months secure lethal doses of medication from their physicians. 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 at the time of their death, and doctors could decline to prescribe the lethal doses if they wish.
It is the second year for a large-scale push to pass the legislation in Maryland. A joint legislative work group met while the General Assembly was out of session to fine-tune the bill and address concerns raised in debate last year.
This year’s bill adds language requiring the individual requesting a lethal prescription to make an oral request alone with the doctor, which removes concerns about coercion in the process. It also requires the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to collect information about aid-in-dying prescriptions and report that data annually.
Hough asked Young about eight questions, many of them summarizing opposition to the proposed bill, including whether the bill stood in opposition to Maryland’s current law banning assisted suicide, whether the bill was discriminatory against some ailing people who wouldn’t be able to “self-administer” the drug because of paralysis or inability to swallow, and whether it was fraud to list the cause of death of a patient who used the procedure outlined in the bill as “natural causes.”
Kim Callinan, chief program officer of Compassion & Choices, the primary organization supporting the bill, said many of the questions posed by Hough were considered and contemplated in the bill, which was based, in part, on legislation passed by other states.
Maryland joins an increasing number of states pursuing similar legislation. In October, California became the fifth state to legalize medical aid in dying. Only one other state has created a similar law through its legislature — Vermont, in 2013. The three other states that have so-called “death with dignity” laws on the books are Oregon, Washington and Montana.
At Thursday’s Senate committee hearing, some senators asked why other changes hadn’t been made to this year’s bill to gain more support.
Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, who said he was “in the middle” on the issue, asked whether the bill could have been amended to require more medical certainty before a person could receive a prescription, or could be narrowed to patients with a shorter prognosis, around two or three months to live.
Callinan said the time frame doesn’t mean the pills need to be taken when a person has six months to live, but it gives patients enough time to see a doctor and retrieve the prescription.
Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll, asked why a mandatory psychiatric screening couldn’t be included.
Sen. H. Wayne Norman Jr., R-Harford, who served on a legislative committee that studied the issue before this year’s bill was introduced, said he wished the bill would have included provisions for storage or destruction of the prescriptions that are not used because they are “very potent chemicals.”
Young said he was open to an amendment on that issue.
Other lawmakers, indicated support for the bill. Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, said having lived through cancer, he saw people suffer tremendously and succumb to terror at the end of their lives.
The bill was considered by a House committee during a several-hour hearing last Friday. Last year, the bills were heard by committees, but were never voted on.
This year’s bill has 41 sponsors and co-sponsors in the House, and 13 sponsors and co-sponsors in the Senate.
A Frederick woman, Geraldine Lloyd, urged the Senate panel to take action this year.
An artist, writer and activist, Lloyd has lived for 23 years with cancers of the throat and lung. She spoke to the committee, and left longer written testimony for the members about her life experience.
“For 23 years under these near tragic consequences, I’ve cherished every breath of my life,” Lloyd wrote. At the end of her life, Lloyd told the committee she wishes to die peacefully, rather than connected to medical interventions.
“Like millions of others who love life with courage and passion, who like me, are facing the finish line, we should be able to pass with a focus on how we’ve lived, not on how we’ve been forced to die,” she said.