BALTIMORE — Betty Kupinsky had always been in control of her life, until an aggressive form of lymphoma had spread throughout her body, leaving her bedridden and waiting for nature to take its course.
It eventually did, but after six weeks of emotional distress and much suffering.
At the age of 90, Kupinsky had begged her son, Michael Strauss, to help end her life while she was receiving hospice-level care. But because Maryland state law does not allow for such measures, Strauss was unable to help grant his mother’s request.
Motivated by his mother’s death in December 2014, Strauss, a Montgomery County resident, has dedicated much of his time to advocating for the highly debated End-of-Life Option Act.
“Had the [End-of-Life Option Act] been around, she would have ended her life about a few days to a week [earlier] with the appropriate means,” Strauss said of his mother. “For a small portion who suffer with physical or emotional pain, it’s just a comforting option to have.”
Strauss, a retired internist and current health policy consultant, was one of nearly 200 people who packed a room on Jan. 25 in Annapolis, where advocates rallied for the End-of-Life Option Act. Many wore bright yellow T-shirts from Compassion & Choice, a nonprofit organization that advocates for end-of-life choice.
Under the bill, which state lawmakers are tackling for the third consecutive year, terminally ill patients with six months or less to live would be allowed to end their lives using a lethal drug prescribed by a doctor.
“Someone else doesn’t know better than I do what my destiny should be,” said Delegate Shane Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat who represents District 13 and is the bill’s lead sponsor. “Why should somebody think they know better than I what’s good for me?”
Patients would be required to visit with a doctor multiple times — once in private — and would also have to request the life-ending prescription three times. The doctor would have to decide whether patients have six months or less to live, have the mental capacity to make a sound medical decision and are able to administer the medication on their own.
Previous legislation failed to make it out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings in each of the two previous years, but supporters believe more progress has been made since then.
Strauss said a major hurdle was cleared when the Maryland State Medical Society (MedChi) voted last fall to alter its position on the issue from opposed to neutral.
While a number of legislators, including Pendergrass, and supporters who back the legislation are Jewish, the community is largely split on the issue.
Prior to the rally for the legislation, Pendergrass said that the legislation is a matter of personal “autonomy” and that people “should have control over their own bodies” without government intervention.
A number of members in the Orthodox Jewish community, however, staunchly oppose the practice of medically assisted suicide, citing the Torah and the Talmud as the deciding factor of when people are born and die.
The Rabbinical Council of America, a group representing more than 1,000 Orthodox rabbis, recently said it “vehemently protests legalizing any pathway for killing the ill, since society thereby supports and normalizes the act of murder.”
Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, director of Agudath Israel of Maryland, said he once again will testify against the bill, at a public hearing on Feb. 16.
“The concept that someone can go ahead and say, ‘Well, enough is enough,’ that’s not a decision that’s up to you,” Sadwin said. “It’s not our decision to decide when people are born and when they die.”
For some who attended the rally, such as 76-year-old Anne Arundel County resident Ellen Dinerman, there is more at stake than religious beliefs.
“I think of this as a civil rights issue,” said Dinerman, a volunteer with Compassion & Choice. “It’s my body and my decision. If you have religious beliefs that don’t let you think that way, then don’t choose this option. It’s all about having choice.”
The practice is legal in five states — Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California and Colorado. In addition, The Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that state law does not prohibit a physician from honoring a terminally ill patient’s request to end his or her life.
A MedChi poll last year found that 65 percent of Maryland residents support end-of-life measures, and 60 percent of physicians either support it or are neutral on the issue.
“This issue should be between a doctor and his or her patient. Nobody else should be involved,” Strauss said. “That’s how most medical decisions should be.”
Justin Silberman is a staff reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times.