Maryland legislators and advocates kicked off this year’s push for the End-of-Life Option Act on Jan. 28, ahead of the introduction of Senate and House bills.
The Richard E. Israel and Roger “Pip” Moyer End-of-Life Option Act, sponsored by Del. Shane Pendergrass (D-District 13) and Sen. Ronald Young (D-District 3), would allow a terminally ill individual with a prognosis of six or few months to live to obtain a prescription for a lethal drug from a physician.
This year’s bill has the support of House Speaker Michael E. Busch and at least one Republican, Baltimore County Del. Christopher West (District 42B).
“It’s all about personal choice, when you reach a point in life that you say ‘I can’t bear going on and I want to make this choice to end on my terms in a peaceful way,’” Young said at the press conference.
“It’s about people and their experiences and their control over the end of their lives,” Pendergrass, a Jewish delegate who represents Howard County, said.
After a similar bill failed to clear a Senate committee last year, a work group convened over the summer to revise it. This current bill states that an oral request must be made by a patient in a one-on-one conversation with his or her doctor, something Pendergrass said would help remove the possibility of coercion, which is a concern of the bill’s critics.
“We tried very hard to do everything we can to strengthen that this is the choice of the individual, not the choice of someone else,” she said.
The revised bill also required the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to collect and report data on the issue.
Among its provisions, a mentally competent patient must make three requests to obtain a lethal prescription; first an oral request, then a written request, then a second oral request at the least 15 days after the first oral request and 48 hours after the written request. The doctor is required to go over all palliative care options and the patient must be able to self-administer the medication.
A number of advocacy organizations joined the bill’s sponsors and co-sponsors at the news conference, including Compassion & Choices, which had a number of Jewish advocates who came to show their support and meet with legislators.
Some explained that their involvement in the issue had roots in sad family circumstances, as loved ones suffered greatly at the end of their lives.
“In 1992, my father asked me to shoot him in the head. He was a World War II vet,” said Bill Snyder of Gaithersburg. “It’s the only time I ever disobeyed my father. … It haunts me.” His father was a smoker, had trouble breathing at the end of his life and was well-aware of what was happening, Snyder said.
Marilyn Shapiro of Owings Mills, 83, said her husband died a horrible death from colon cancer.
“It’s inhumane to let someone suffer like that,” she said. “My own son wanted to cover my husband’s mouth with the pillow. I said, ‘We can’t do that.’ He was so terribly upset to see his father writhing in pain like that.”
Edna Hirsch, a dentist from Harford County, is a breast cancer survivor whose father, a physician, died a painful death.
“On his deathbed, he very much wished he could have had this medication. He suffered a lot,” she said. “He would have liked to have done it this way.”
Last year, the bill faced opposition from religious communities, including the Orthodox Jewish community, as well as from the Baltimore Jewish Council. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington opposed the bill last year and will not support it this year because it goes against Halacha, Jewish law.
The Baltimore Jewish Council planned to address the matter at a board meeting. Executive director Art Abramson said the BJC can’t support the bill because it is contrary to Jewish law, but it could step back and not heavily lobby against it. A number of members of the Baltimore Jewish community as well as Pendergrass criticized the BJC for its stance against the legislation.
Those who attended the press conference thought religion should not play a part in the debate.
“It is unthinkable that the conditions of one’s death, one of the most deeply personal moments in one’s life and the lives of their families, might be influenced by the personal beliefs and ideologies of strangers,” said Matthew Goldstein, chair of the Secular Coalition for Maryland. “But this is the reality confronted by those tragically faced with terminal illnesses in Maryland.”
Les Heltzer, a member of B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville who had a close friend die from brain cancer, said religion doesn’t enter into the debate for him.
“Among my friends, the idea of compassion and self-choice at the end of life is not something they put in religious grounds,” he said.
Added Shapiro: “I feel that our rabbis would not be happy with us doing this because they believe God gives life and takes it away, but that’s an old-fashioned feeling. It’s not enlightened.”
Del. Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11) said she felt “very comfortable” as a Jewish legislator supporting the end-of-life option, likening it to issues of choice in women’s reproductive issues and same-sex marriage.
“I imagine that religious leaders would differ on those too. As a legislator, I have to represent all the people in my district,” she said. “I feel very comfortable as a Jewish legislator supporting this as I do the other issues that I mentioned.”
According to a 2015 Goucher Poll, 60 percent of Maryland residents support the end-of-life option; and 35 percent oppose it.
“This is something I’ve heard about from constituents. It’s really important to community members in Baltimore County,” Hettleman, a sponsor of the bill, said. “Personally, I just feel like this is something that every individual should be able to consult with their faith leader, with their family, with their doctor and make a decision for themselves.”