ANNAPOLIS – The Senate gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill that penalizes those who assist in suicides, after an emotional debate that included lawmakers’ personal experiences of watching people suffer.
“No priest, no governor … nobody can tell me that I couldn’t do it,” said Sen. Thomas Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, remembering his father’s agonizing death from leukemia 16 years ago.
If his father had asked, Bromwell said, he would have made arrangements for his father to die to cut short his suffering.
“No one wants to do it but until you’re there, until you’ve walked in my shoes, you don’t know what it’s like to watch your father die,” Bromwell said later.
But Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s and a co-sponsor of the bill, said assisted suicide “just runs counter to what I think we should believe.”
“I think our purpose should be to protect life at any cost,” said Dyson, adding that the bill would help prevent a “Jack Kevorkian atmosphere” in Maryland.
The Senate approved the ban 25-22. It still faces another Senate vote before it can move to the House, where a companion bill was killed in committee Monday.
Sen. Norman Stone, D-Baltimore County, said the bill is designed to fix a loophole in laws that do not make suicide a crime, thus making it difficult to prosecute those who assist in suicide.
Stone, one of six co-sponsors of the bill, said it was prompted by a Frederick case in which Mary Gaye Fister reportedly asked a business associate to help her kill herself because of financial problems.
Lawrence H. Goldman admitted he was a willing participant in Fister’s September 1996 death, but maintained it was an assisted suicide. He was charged with murder, however, and received a five-year sentence after pleading guilty to manslaughter last March.
Stone said that was an “extreme case,” but the law is still needed.
The bill would make it a felony to assist in another’s suicide or suicide attempt, punishable by up to three years in jail and a $10,000 fine. Doctors who assisted in a suicide would also lose their medical licenses.
It makes an exception for medical workers giving pain medication that may slow down a patient’s recovery, unless they intentionally used the drugs to help a person commit suicide.
Opponents said assisted suicide is not an issue for government to decide, however, but a private decision for sick people and their families to make.
“Where is the state’s compelling interest?” asked Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County. “We are constantly invading the privacy of individuals.”
Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, said the “legislation doesn’t belong here.” Hollinger, a practicing nurse, said she felt “guilty” making a woman paralyzed from the neck down by multiple sclerosis continue on a respirator, despite the woman’s constant efforts to kill herself.
Hollinger said she is not for assisted suicide, but she is also not for any bill that would take away a person’s choice in the matter.
Kelley, who watched her father die painfully, said later that she would have also ended his life if he could have asked her.
“I think it’s their privacy if they’re just in misery,” Kelley said. “Birth, death, marriage. That’s your personal decision.”
If Thursday’s vote holds and the bill gets out of the Senate, it has a chance in the House, despite a Judiciary Committee vote to kill it, said Del. Rose Mary Hatem Bonsack, D- Harford.
Bonsack said some committee members who may have voted for the measure were not present for Monday’s vote.
“I think it’ll do very well,” she said. “Hopefully it will stand a chance in passing.”