Although they are thousands of miles away, the members of the Hemlock Society of Maryland feel that the struggle in Washington state to legalize doctor-assisted suicide is their fight, too.
They have sent checks to support the "Yes on 119" campaign. They have made telephone calls to friends and relatives in Washington state, asking them to vote for the referendum. They are taking notes on the strategy used by Initiative 119 proponents and have begun laying the foundation for a similar effort here.
"It's a matter of choice," said Lee Snellings, founder of the Maryland Hemlock Society, which has more than 200 members. "It's not something everyone would have to follow. People have a right to suffer if they want to suffer, or if they want their loved ones to suffer."
Compared with other states, Maryland has fairly liberal right-to-die laws, he said. Doctors must adhere to instructions in living wills, which can instruct them either not to take "extraordinary measures" to sustain a patient's life or to take every measure possible.
And in an opinion issued in 1988, State Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said the living-will law gives terminally ill patients the right to forgo not only respirators but also feeding tubes that supply nutrition and water. Those rights also extend to patients who are not terminally ill but who have lapsed into permanent comas or persistent vegetative states.
Mr. Curran also said that by signing a legal document called a durable power of attorney, a patient too ill to communicate also can designate somebody to make health care decisions.
Mr. Snellings said the Hemlock Society of Maryland is sending out more than 1,600 surveys to doctors seeking support for a law similar to Washington's Initiative 119.