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Right to a peaceful death

The Maryland General Assembly is advancing a bill that would permit medical professionals to help terminally ill patients end their own lives. Medical aid in dying, as the End-of-Life Option Act would allow, is an idea whose time has definitely come.

Anyone who has ever watched a loved one die a painful death — gasping for air, writhing in pain — cannot help but be supportive of the idea. A terminally ill patient should have the individual choice of dying with dignity, rather than suffering. Polling in recent years has shown that as many as three-quarters of Americans support the idea.

The caveat is that the law must be written in such a way that the terminally ill patient is solely in charge of this most personal and basic decision. We believe that the current Maryland proposal meets that standard.

As Compassion & Choices, the civic group proposing the law has stated, it “would give mentally capable, terminally ill adults with six months or less to live the option to get a doctor’s prescription for medication they can take if their suffering becomes intolerable.”

It was introduced in the House of Delegates by Shane Pendergrass of Howard County, chair of the Health and Government Operations Committee, and in the state Senate by Will Smith of Montgomery County, vice chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Sen. Ron Young and Del. Karen Lewis Young of Frederick are co-sponsors.

Similar bills have failed in the last four legislative sessions in Annapolis, but last week a joint House committee approved the bill and it was scheduled for a floor vote.

The bill has several important protections against potential abuses. The patient would have to have received a diagnosis of less than six months to live, and be judged mentally capable of making an informed decision.

The patient would have to ask his or her attending physician orally to be given the medication, then submit a formal written request, signed in the presence of two witnesses. The patient would also be required to then make a second oral request. At least one of the meetings with the physician must be with the patient alone, to guard against a patient being pressured to seek the aid.

The bill states that the patient is the only person who may request aid in dying. No guardian, conservator, power of attorney or agent under an advanced directive may ask for the aid on behalf of the patient.

After receiving the two oral and one written requests, the attending physician would need to refer the patient to a second doctor, who would have to examine the patient, agree on the diagnosis and approve of the treatment.

Only then could a prescription be given, to be administered personally by the patient.

This is a very carefully written bill, providing significant safeguards against abuse of an ill person. Opponents have called it physician-assisted suicide, to evoke unpleasant memories of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the infamous “Dr. Death” of the 1990s who went to prison for assisting people in dying by suicide.

But this bill does not entice people to kill themselves. It simply allows doctors to assist terminal patients who want to die with dignity.

This bill also does not permit euthanasia or “mercy killing.” This is not a law that could be used to pressure a disabled person to take their own lives. Pro-life groups opposing this law are misstating its purpose and impact.

We urge the General Assembly to approve the bill, to show compassion for Marylanders suffering from a terminal illness.

No patient can be forced to end their own life under it. It simply gives someone the option of hastening the end on their own timetable, according to their own principles, with a minimum of pain. Everyone should have the right to a peaceful death.

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