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Health Care Justice

Ferguson Skeptical That Aid-in-Dying Bill Can Move This Session

House Health and Government Operations Chairwoman Shane M. Pendergrass (D-Howard) prepares to speak at an Annapolis rally Tuesday for supporters of aid-in-dying legislation. Photo by Josh Kurtz

The Maryland General Assembly is unlikely to vote on an aid-in-dying measure this year because advocates appear to lack the support needed for passage, Senate President Bill Ferguson said on Tuesday.

Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) offered his observations on a day when hundreds of the bill’s advocates rallied in Annapolis and suggested that the measure is picking up momentum.

“Everyone is one bad death away from supporting this bill,” said House Health and Government Operations Chairwoman Shane M. Pendergrass (D-Howard), the prime House sponsor of the bill. She boasted that the measure has 53 co-sponsors so far.

In 2019, advocates attempted to make Maryland the 10th state in which people judged to have irreversible conditions would have the right to inject themselves with a lethal, physician-obtained dose of medication.

Supporters say such measures bring comfort — and options — to those with painful, debilitating conditions for which there is no cure. Opponents say they place pressure on vulnerable people with serious health conditions who worry they’re a burden to family.

The measure passed the House of Delegates narrowly last March but died on a tie vote in the state Senate.

On Tuesday morning, Ferguson told reporters the bill’s prospects have not improved.

“The votes haven’t changed substantially, and unless there’s really a clear indication that Senators have changed their position, it doesn’t look like something that we’ll see this year,” he said.

Last year House and Senate committees held a joint hearing on a death-with-dignity bill in the legislature’s Joint Hearing Room. The session ran all day and included passionate testimony from people on both sides of the issue.

The measure’s sponsor in the Senate last year, Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), is now chairman of the Judiciary Proceedings Committee, which potentially puts him in a position to advocate more forcefully for the legislation. But Smith said earlier this month that he wasn’t likely to put his colleagues through a similar hearing unless he was reasonable confident of a win.

The new vice chairman of the Judicial Proceedings panel, Sen. Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery), is now the chief Senate sponsor of the legislation.

Ferguson, who voted in favor of the bill in 2019, echoed Smith’s view on Tuesday.

“In the legislative process you never know,” he said. “But if the votes are the same, I think we’ll make sure that it has a pathway when there is an opportunity for a different discussion.”

At Tuesday’s rally in the Lowe House Office Building, more than 150 bill supporters came together, many clad in yellow T-shirts. Del. Jessica Feldmark (D-Howard) held a poster of the late U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), while Del. Alice Cain (D-Anne Arundel) held a poster of the late House speaker Michael E. Busch (D). Both officials died last year.

Pendergrass said both leaders were strong supporters of aid-in-dying legislation.

“They cared so deeply about this issue,” she said. “And they help remind me how important this bill is to all of us.”

The coalition Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide issued multiple statements Tuesday panning the legislation. The experts quoted in the statements all suggested that such laws are especially dangerous to vulnerable populations like the elderly, the disabled, and drug addicts, among others.

“In states where physician-assisted suicide is legal we continue to see reports of large numbers of patients who receive yet never take the lethal dose,” said Christine Sybert, clinical pharmacist at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore. “Legalizing physician-assisted suicide risks exposing our communities to a new source of addiction and harm due to the lack of safeguards in the bill for the prescriptions. We now know that as many as one-third of prescription drug overdoses, and we continue to see the overall suicide rate rise in states like Oregon, where the practice is legal.”

But advocates for the aid-in-dying law released a recent poll Tuesday that showed 66% of Marylanders favor the legislation.

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Ferguson Skeptical That Aid-in-Dying Bill Can Move This Session