News Analysis

It’s too soon to celebrate Maryland’s assisted suicide vote

Will a dramatic defeat in Maryland halt campaigners' momentum?

An assisted suicide bill was narrowly defeated in the Maryland Senate (pictured) last week, ensuring that the measure – which was passed by the House – will not become law, for now.

The House bill had been passed three weeks earlier, on March 3, and the Senate defeated it on March 28. Senator Pamela Beidle of Ann Arundel, a Democrat, switched her vote to no at the last minute. Senator Obie Patterson, a Prince George’s County Democrat, declined to vote on
the bill, and his abstention deadlocked the chamber.

“Because of your calls, emails and efforts, physician-assisted suicide will not be legalised in Maryland this year,” announced the Maryland Catholic Conference in a statement when the bill went down. They had encouraged Catholics to call their senators to urge them to oppose the bill.

Under the bill, lethal injection, mercy killing or euthanasia would not be legal, but it would allow doctors to prescribe drugs to a terminal patient judged to be within six months of death. There were supporters and opponents in both parties, but more Democratic defectors, given that they control both houses of the Maryland statehouse. Only one Republican senator voted for the bill. A group of 17 black delegates, including Jay Walker of Prince George’s County, voted against the measure. The Baltimore Sun quoted Walker as saying that bill was “overstepping our bounds” and that end-of-life laws should “give our Lord the opportunity for a miracle”.

Assisted suicide is currently illegal in a majority of states, and the Supreme Court upheld that right of states to prohibit it in Vacco v Quill in 1997. While that decision confirmed New York’s ban on assisted suicide, the trend in other states is toward permitting the practice. In the seven states where it is legal, it has been legalised in the last 25 years. But within the last two years, more than two dozen state legislatures have introduced bills that would legalise it.

In January assisted suicide became legal in Hawaii under similar terms as in Oregon and Washington, and New Jersey governor Phil Murphy has pledged to sign a law passed by the legislature allowing physician-assisted suicide in that state, making it the eighth. That bill, like the Maryland one, had been introduced several times before, but in New Jersey’s case it will become law.

Both bills are modelled on the Oregon law, and the final version, which failed, would have insisted the patient make three requests and observe a waiting period. In most states where the practice is legal, it was passed by ballot measure. The exceptions are Vermont and California, whose legislatures legalised it. In Washington, DC, it was passed through the city council and was not blocked by Congress.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Catholic Republican, had signalled his opposition to the same bill in the past, but did not take a position on the current legislation. He has a reputation as a centrist, which rests on his being a popular Republican governor of a blue state – so he may be relieved he did not have to sign or veto the bill.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore led much of the opposition to the bill, taking part in the Maryland March for Life the week of the House vote.

“As citizens, we should be very alarmed by the possibility that physician-assisted suicide could become legal in our state,” the archbishop said, in a homily after the march quoted by the Catholic News Service. “The bill under consideration is regarded by many as a ‘Death with Dignity’ bill, but the death which this bill would allow for is anything but dignified.

“In European countries where euthanasia has been legal for decades, it is no longer a question of a right to die, but it is now an obligation to die when one’s condition has become burdensome to the family or to the state-run medical system.”

Former NPR host Diane Rehm testified in support of the bill. The Washington Post has described Rehm as a “key force” in backing legislation that expands access to legal suicide. Her husband suffered from Parkinson’s disease and died in 2014.

Compassion & Choices, the successor to the Hemlock Society and Compassion in Dying Federation, backed the legislation. Kim Callinan, its CEO, wrote an op-ed for the Capital Gazette describing the bill’s defeat: “The unfortunate reality was that the opposition used the short legislative session – and the fact that the Senate bill sponsor, Sen Will Smith, was getting deployed to Afghanistan – to cram 26 destructive amendments down the throat of supportive lawmakers in the Senate. These caring lawmakers were compromising in the hopes they could bring this compassionate option to their constituents.”

She believes that, despite the setback, Maryland will soon go the way of New Jersey. While the people of Maryland are safe from assisted suicide for the time being, advocates clearly believe that time is on their side. In Maryland, it was one vote away from passing.