Sen. William C. Smith Jr. of Montgomery County lightened the mood near the beginning of a more than four-hour public hearing on Maryland state lawmakers possibly deciding to allow terminally ill patients to end their lives.
Smith, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, praised the group’s vice chair, Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery County), for standing at the lectern for about 40 minutes to summarize and answer questions about the bill he’s sponsoring.
“That was the longest we’ve had a member of our committee standing up on the stand this year. You deserve a round of applause. Maybe a beer afterwards.” Smith said Friday, Feb. 28 to laughter and applause in the committee room.
Dozens of people traveled to Annapolis to testify on the proposed End-of-Dying Act, the only bill reviewed Friday by the committee.
Lawmakers, advocates, religious leaders and others presented emotional testimony last year in support and opposition on the legislation that passed the House. However, it failed on the Senate floor after a 23-23 tie because Sen. Obie Patterson (D-District 26) of Fort Washington didn’t cast a deciding vote.
The committee heard emotional testimony Friday, including from members of First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro.
“Too many faith leaders, including some from my church, have developed this myth that the God we serve is limited,” said the Rev. Joseph Lynn Kitchen Jr., president of the Young Democrats of Maryland and supporter of the bill. “They will preach a version of an all-knowing God who foresaw terminal illness, but won’t acknowledge that he would deliver us the aid and the comfort to deliver those patients from that pain.”
The Rev. Allison Johnson, associate pastor at Glenarden and retired Army master sergeant, opposes the bill because it would affect Blacks and veterans.
“As a Christian ethics instructor, I and those I teach, believe in the sacredness of life,” she said. “Most of you would argue that capital punishment is barbaric and inhumane. Here we are in 2020 … poised to approve physician-assisted suicide under the guise of compassionate choice.”
Opponents pointed out that the bill wouldn’t force a person to face “civil or criminal liability or professional disciplinary action for participation in good faith.”
Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick County) asked why these specific doctors who conduct end-of-life measures would receive immunity when others in the medical profession don’t.
“This is a new area of law and requires people to know that they are safe in operating under the code we are advocating,” Waldstreicher said. “In other states, that level of safety has provided comfort for the physicians who are partaking in this to provide these services to patients who are terminally ill.”
A person terminally ill must receive a prognosis that highlights a medical condition to result in death within six months.
According to the legislation, physicians who coerce patients to make written requests to end their lives would be charged with a felony and face up to 10 years in prison, a fine not exceeding $10,000, or both.
The nonprofit organization Death With Dignity notes eight states and the District of Columbia approved aid-of-dying laws.
Sen. Robert Cassilly (R-Harford County) said a portion of the Maryland legislation, “actions taken in accordance with this subtitle do not for any purpose constitute suicide [or] assisted suicide,” tries to present a positive tone. He likened it to using words and phrases such as a “man-servant,” which he said represents a “slave,” and “work camps,” which he said means “concentration camps” used to kill Jews in Europe.
“Clearly, this is assisted suicide,” he said. “As a worldwide society, we’ve had a bad experience when we call things, things they are not. For the [proposed bill] to say it is something else, it troubles me.”