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Undimmed by Past Defeats, Advocates Renew Push for End-of-Life Options Bill

House Health and Government Operations Committee Chair Shane M. Pendergrass (D-Howard) spoke at a rally supporting a medical aid-in-dying bill in 2019. Advocates said Thursday they will resume their campaign to sway the Maryland General Assembly. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Armed with a new survey touting higher levels of public support than ever, supporters of medical aid-in-dying legislation pledged on Thursday to resume their campaign to sway the Maryland General Assembly.

Supporters of aid-in-dying laws believe that people with painful, terminal illnesses — and who are of sound mind — should be able to obtain a prescription from their doctor enabling them to end their lives. Ten states and the District of Columbia have such laws now, including Oregon, which adopted one 24 years ago.

Opponents believe such measures can create pressure on people with serious illnesses to end their lives, to avoid being a burden on loved ones. Many object on religious grounds.

In 2019, a measure called the End-of-Life Options Act died when a single senator chose not to cast a vote, creating a 23-23 tie. Nine Democrats, including then Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), joined their Republican colleagues in voting against measure, which enjoys widespread support in the House of Delegates.

On Thursday, backers of aid-in-dying legislation — what opponents call “assisted suicide” — touted a new survey that found the highest levels yet of public support for their cause.

The poll found that 69% of Maryland voters believe “that a mentally sound adult with an incurable, terminal illness, who only has six months or less to live, should have the legal option of medical aid in dying,” the polling firm reported in a memo. One-in-five voters were opposed, and 11% offered no opinion.

Support for aid-in-dying crossed party and demographic lines, Gonzales Research & Media Services found, and it was high in every region of the state.

“People talk about this divide, but here’s the reality for this issue. There is no divide,” said Kim Callinan, a Montgomery County resident who serves as CEO of the advocacy group Compassion & Choices, which commissioned the survey.

“It doesn’t matter where you live — Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore, Baltimore City, the Baltimore suburbs, the Washington suburbs — everybody wants this as an option,” she added. “We’re talking about universal support.”

More than half of those polled — 57% — said they personally “would want the option of medical aid in dying” if they “had an incurable, terminal illness, still had a sound mind, had less than six months to live and met the legal requirements.”

Gonzales Research & Media Services, based in Arnold, conducted the survey by polling 807 people in late December. The survey has a 3.5% margin of error.

Two years ago, Gonzales found that 66 percent of Marylanders supported aid-in-dying legislation, with 30% opposed and 4% having no opinion.

Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick), an opponent of what he dubbed “assisted suicide,” expressed doubt that legislative leaders will have much appetite for a potentially time-consuming debate on a hot-button issue in an election year.

“It’s super controversial,” he said, noting that several Democrats in the Senate oppose end-of-life options. “It had its shot and it died.”

Committee hearings on such legislation have lasted hours, bringing hundreds of witnesses to Annapolis for emotion-laden hearings.

“Why should the Senate committee and the full Senate eat up its time with something that’s already died on the floor this cycle?” Hough asked.

Sen. Obie Patterson (D-Prince George’s), who sat through a lengthy, emotional debate in 2019, then declined to cast a vote, said he is “open for discussion.”

“I’m open to listen,” he added. “I’ve had a chance to experience some things and sometimes that can tilt you.”

Backers of the legislation said waiting until after the elections is not an option.

“Every time we delay this, we are on the other end of somebody calling us who’s terminally ill, who’s not able to chart their own end-of-life journey, who doesn’t have those moments of, ‘I’m in charge,’ at the very end,” said Callinan.

Bill supporters said Thursday they now have two Republican supporters — Sen. Chris West (R-Baltimore County) and Del. Trent Kittleman (R-Howard and Carroll) — but they conceded the Senate remains sharply divided.

“We are close to the finish line, but we’ve been close before,” said Del. Shane Pendergrass (D-Howard).

Lorenzo Bellamy, a lobbyist for Compassion & Choices, said “we are continuously doing a whip count on both sides and it’s still very close.”

“I think that poll definitely helps,” he added. “And even with the religious community, I think it’s going to be very informative to have that poll and share the results as it’s broken down by gender, by age. We can use that to help with working with the legislators that are on the fringe.”


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Undimmed by Past Defeats, Advocates Renew Push for End-of-Life Options Bill