ANNAPOLIS – A Maryland lawmaker wants to set a legal standard where one does not now exist – in the ethical gray area of assisted suicide.
But a right-to-life lobbyist calls a the proposed standard a statement that the elderly “are not worth anything in our society.”
The lawmaker is Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, D-Montgomery, sponsor of a bill permitting physicians to help terminally ill patients to die, when the patient requests such help. The lobbyist is Carey Lynn Garst, legislative coordinator for Maryland Right to Life. And their disagreement is one of the sharpest of the 1995 General Assembly session.
“The elderly want it,” Dembrow said this week, before testifying on his bill before the House Environmental Matters Committee. “They want to have the right of self-determination, and to leave that right in their own family.”
Garst, however, feels the bill would make a target of Maryland’s elderly.
“It’s prejudice based on age,” Garst said. “Realize, this makes death a legal treatment option for doctors.”
Dembrow’s bill is historic. It would establish when a physician could provide a patient with a lethal dose of a self- administered drug. Last session’s assisted suicide bill would have have explicitly outlawed the practice.
Peter Terry, a Johns Hopkins medical professor who works in intensive care, said that it is usually psychological distress, rather than physical pain, that leads to requests for aid in dying.
Terry, in a telephone interview, called Dembrow’s bill “dangerous” and “a disaster.” If society decides euthanasia is morally and legally permissable, it must then consider whether doctors should make the key decisions, he said.
Current managed care health systems reward doctors for keeping down costs, he noted, adding that an unethical physican could provide a patient with such a gloomy prognosis that the patient requests euthanasia.
But one supporter of Dembrow’s bill testified at this week’s hearing that giving aid to the dying can be a matter of a doctor’s courage.
Kaziah Clayton appeared on behalf of her late mother, Mary. In the last five years of her life, Clayton said, her mother had cardiac arrest, respiratory failure and stroke that left her unable to enjoy even simple pleasures such as reading or snacking.
Her mother was rational when she sought “to have the means of ending her life if she chose to,” Clayton said. She found a doctor who agreed to prescribe the necessary pills.
“She was not afraid of dying,” Clayton said, “but she was terrified that it would be a very hard death and that she would be conscious throughout her body’s struggle to survive.”
Her mother took the pills after putting on her favorite clothes, sitting in her favorite chair, and putting on her favorite video tape.
“I miss her, but I have no regrets,” Clayton said. “My being with her as she died was my last act of love for her.”
Clayton urged the lawmakers to protect doctors like the one her mother found.
But experts say that even if Dembrow’s bill were to pass, it would have to clear another hurdle – in the courts.
James Bopp Jr., an Indiana attorney with experience in right-to-die law, says the bill is “woefully deficient” and “frought with unconstitutionality in the way that it is put together.”
Bopp represents plaintiffs who won an indefinite injunction against Ballot Measure 16, an Oregon statute similar to the law Dembrow proposes. Measure 16 has been appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, but Bopp doesn’t expect to the case to be heard until sometime this summer.
The National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled reviewed Dembrow’s bill at the request of Del. Michael W. Burns, R-Anne Arundel. In a letter to Burns, the center said the bill:
– Is subject to constitutional attack.
– Violates federal statutory law.
– Was written in “undefined, vague, and ambiguous terms” that left it “open to extreme abuse.”
Dembrow is undeterred. “Many of the major issues take more than one year to be resolved,” he said. “But we’re certainly going to give it our best shot.” -30-