ANNAPOLIS — Lawmakers and supporters crowded a House of Delegates meeting room on Thursday to support legislation to let terminally ill patients in Maryland end their lives by taking prescription drugs.
“This is all about personal choice when you reach that point in life that you say, ‘I can’t bear going on, and I want to make the choice to end on my terms and in a peaceful way,’” said Frederick County state Sen. Ron Young, D-District 3.
Young and Delegate Shane Pendergrass, D-Howard, will join other lawmakers in a renewed effort to pass an End of Life Option Act this session. Young and Pendergrass are the lead sponsors of related bills scheduled to be introduced in each chamber on Friday.
The bill would let competent adults who live in Maryland and are suffering from a disease likely to kill them within six months to 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. Doctors could decline to prescribe the lethal doses if they wish.
There are criminal penalties for people who falsify a written request or coerce someone else into seeking a prescription. The bill does not legalize lethal injection, mercy killing or euthanasia.
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 during debate last year.
Opposition to the bill last year centered on religious beliefs, fear that people could end their lives based on a false diagnosis or depression, and fear that the bill could lead to terminally ill Marylanders being pressured by others to end their lives.
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.
Supporters “tried very hard to do everything we can” to strengthen language to make it clear that a prescription would be the choice of the individual, not someone else, Pendergrass said.
The bill adds language that would require the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to collect information about aid-in-dying prescriptions and report that data annually.
The same collection method is used in Oregon and revealed that about one-third of people who secure a lethal prescription don’t use it.
The bill will face opposition. Last year, a coalition of religious and disability groups formed against the legislation.
A Goucher poll released during last year’s General Assembly session found that 60 percent of Maryland residents surveyed would support allowing terminally ill patients to secure lethal doses of medication from a willing doctor.
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.
A representative from Compassion & Choices, a national advocacy group promoting the legislation, thinks the bill will garner more co-sponsors than it did last year, when 47 lawmakers signed on.
“This issue is a purple issue. It crosses color lines. It crosses class lines. It crosses political lines,” said Donna Smith, the Maryland campaign manager for Compassion & Choices.
Young said he’s keeping his fingers crossed that the legislation will move forward this year.
“I think we have enough support to pass the bill. We have to get it out of committees,” Young told the crowd of supporters before they headed out to lobby their lawmakers Thursday afternoon. “I’m feeling very good about making this happen this year.”