‘Promise me you will help me’: Md. lawmakers hear death with dignity testimony

WASHINGTON — Both supporters and opponents of a bill that would allow a terminally ill person end their life with the help of a doctor testified in Annapolis on Friday.

The bill is known as the End-of-Life Option Act (Richard E. Israel and Roger “Pip” Moyer Act) in honor of former Annapolis Mayor Roger “Pip” Moyer, who died in 2015, and former Alderman Richard “Dick” Israel, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and lobbied for the bill from his hospice room in 2015. He died the same year.

Among the supporters, was Diane Rehm, a retired NPR talk-show host who became a proponent of so-called death with dignity laws like those in Oregon and Colorado after her husband, John Rehm, died in 2014.

Rehm explained that when her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he felt “betrayed” when a doctor told him Maryland law would not permit medically-assisted death. If a bill like the one being considered in the Maryland General Assembly had been in place then, Rehm told a joint committee in Annapolis, “he would have been able to say goodbye to his loved ones and spare us from watching him suffer further.”

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Instead of getting a lethal dose of a drug the bill would allow a doctor to prescribe, Rehm said her husband decided to stop eating and drinking water. He died 10 days later.

“The legislation you are considering might have permitted John Rehm to have the measure of autonomy that he wanted over his own death,” Rehm said of her husband.

Marcy Rubin, a cancer patient, also testified in favor of House Bill 399. Her voice rose with emotion as she told lawmakers: “Don’t say you understand me. Promise me you will help me. Pass this bill. Allow me the right to decide to die with dignity.”

The bill under consideration would require that a terminally ill person seeking medical assistance to die would have to be 18 years old, deemed mentally able to make the decision, and their doctor would have to determine that they have six months or fewer to live. The bill also requires that a patient would have to make the request for a fatal dose of medicine three times.

Opponents of the bill, who say flatly it is medically-assisted suicide, are worried that it would be used in ways that would target people with disabilities, or that a patient could seem to be mentally fit, but actually be unable to make a sound decision on the issue.

Anne Dowling, who testified that her own mother had a form of dementia that emerged after several strokes, explained her mother could present as mentally able when she went to doctors’ appointments. But later at home, Dowling said, “She’d ask me what her toothbrush was supposed to be used for. She’d forget that she had three sons,” Dowling said.

The ARC Maryland works to help those with intellectual and developmental disabilities integrate into society. Edward Willard, is the organization’s policy analyst, and he has cerebral palsy. Speaking with the aid of a device, he told the panel that in 2017 he had pneumonia and nearly died. Willard told the panel he was given a breathing tube multiple times, and that a doctor treating him explained to his mother what the course of treatment would be, adding: “Or we could let him die.”

“I am lucky my mother was there to stand up for my right for lifesaving treatment,” Willard told lawmakers.

Similar bills failed in legislative sessions in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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