Medical Aid-in-Dying Bill Fails in Tie Senate Vote

A stack of possible amendments to the End-of-Life Option Act is on the corner of Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings’ desk on Wednesday morning. The amendments were never introduced. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

An emotional debate in the Maryland Senate over whether to pass aid-in-dying legislation ended Wednesday in a tied vote and the measure’s defeat.

After about 50 minutes of discussion, senators voted 23-23 on the Senate Judicial Proceedings report on the End-of-Life Option Act. The bill failed for lack of majority support in the chamber.

One lawmaker in the chamber at the time of the debate, Sen. Obie Patterson (D-Prince George’s), did not cast a vote one way or the other.

Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), the bill’s chief sponsor, had hoped to witness a vote of approval before Thursday, his last day in Annapolis this session before a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan as an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

He thanked the body for a “vigorous and complicated and emotional” debate.

“I’m proud of the work we did. I’m proud of the product we brought to the Senate. And I’m proud of my yes vote,” Smith said.

It was the first vote ever on the issue on the Senate floor. Similar bills have been introduced three other times in recent years, but had never reached the floors of either chamber. The House of Delegates voted 74-66 in favor of the measure earlier this session.

The bill had been substantially amended by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which added amendments to raise the age limit for access for access to medical aid in dying to 21; mandate a mental health assessment; require doctors to provide patients with a list of all other available treatment opportunities; and remove immunity clauses for doctors who choose to offer the prescriptions. The committee also included a more detailed definition of “terminal illness.”

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), the committee chair, said he hasn’t seen a committee work so hard on a bill during his time in the General Assembly.

“The bill as it came in was a no vote for me. And the bill as it came out was a yes,” Zirkin said during an earlier floor debate on Tuesday.

The roll call vote on the committee’s report on Tuesday was unusual and took place before the chamber even considered the stacks of potential floor amendments piled on the corners of lawmakers’ desks.

Several Republican members of the chamber stood to speak against the bill.

Sen. Robert A. Cassilly (R-Harford), who had previously called the bill “fundamentally evil,” asked whether it might create perverse incentives in government and for-profit health care systems.

“What does it mean to prescribe death as a treatment?” he asked.

The bill creates an end-of-life option that is “cheap, fast and easy” when medical treatment can often be slow, methodical and expensive, he said.

Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick) voted against the bill. He said a vote to retain the state’s death penalty in 2013 has haunted him for years and he’s since resolved to always cast votes that “err on the side of life.”

Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), who watched her daughter die of a cancer, said “there was nothing beautiful, that was sanctified, that was holy about what I had to observe.”

She spoke in favor of the bill.

“No one should tell me how much suffering they believe God wants me to endure when I’m in certain situations of extreme unction, when there isn’t a moment of peace,” Kelley said.

Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) said she felt strongly that everyone should have the right to make decisions about their own bodies and death. “That decision is between me and my God and nobody else. To me it’s a simple decision. I feel so strongly that it’s my choice,” she said.

The Senate vote divided members of political parties. Sen. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County), a sponsor of the bill, was the only Republican to vote in favor. Nine Democrats, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), voted against the bill.

After the Senate adjourned, Patterson told reporters he was conflicted on the issue because “I’ve had experiences on both sides.”

“I did not cast a vote simply because I could not bring myself to move right or left on the bill and therefore I didn’t vote at all,” he said. “I don’t know if it is [a violation of Senate rules]  but I had to vote my conscience and that’s what I did.”

Patterson said he had no regrets about his decision.

The bill’s House sponsor, Del. Shane M. Pendergrass (D-Howard), expressed disappointment after the Senate vote.

“It would be better if we passed a good bill. Short of that, we made good progress this year,” she said in an interview.

Asked if the bill will be back next year, she replied, “That’s up to the Senate sponsor.”

Smith said he wasn’t entirely surprised by the vote on Wednesday. He knew passage was within a vote or two and that Patterson was one of the swing votes.

Smith said he’s not likely to reintroduce the bill next session, but would consider sponsoring the measure again in the future.

“I definitely will keep the issue going,” Smith said, noting that New Jersey had just passed similar legislation this week.

Bruce DePuyt and Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.

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