Euthanasia debate hits home Area elderly debate "death with dignity."

November 06, 1991|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

As two retirement community residents finished dinner, they fell into an argument over a ballot proposal that went on to defeat in Washington state that would have allowed doctors to help terminally ill patients kill themselves.

"But what if I should become terminally ill?" the woman demanded, wondering where she would find relief if not from her physician.

Her companion Paul Herold, a retired general surgeon from Baltimore, said if he were treating her in that case, he would give her a large but non-lethal injection of painkilling drugs. "If you died, you died," he said. "If you come out of it, I'd give you another."

But he wouldn't administer a lethal injection if she requested it, as the Washington ballot question would have allowed. That would be wrong, he said.

The so-called "Death with Dignity" Initiative 119 was defeated last night in Washington state. The measure would have sanctioned doctors to help terminally-ill patients end their lives and would have made Washington the first jurisdiction in the world to legalize euthanasia.

The medical community said yesterday's vote in Washington certainly didn't shut the door on the matter for other states in the future. The issue has yet to reach Maryland politics, but it has set people talking in places such as the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville.

"You might get disgustingly sick for a short time," said Howard M. Pratt as he sat in the lounge after dinner. "People are impulsive." But to seek suicide from a physician, he said, "that's right on the edge, very close to not being desirable."

But Mary Rossworm, another resident, would want the option. "I think we all pray for an easy death," she said. "We just talked about it at the dinner table tonight."

Doctors may not want to go along.

"I had a request from a patient to terminate his life, and I refused to do it under the circumstances," said Dr. Peter Terry, who works in pulmonary and critical care at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "Some patients may ask that their lives be terminated when they're depressed or they haven't been fully treated," Terry said. "I would have a hard time assessing the state of mind of patients."

The Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland passed a resolution last year saying, in part: "The intentional termination of the life of one human being by another is contrary to medical tradition."

But the Hemlock Society, an internationally recognized advocacy group of the "right to die," sees euthanasia as "self-deliverance" from life that is no longer worth living. Hemlock, which organized the ballot petition drive in Washington, has a Maryland chapter that is already laying the groundwork to bring the issue before the General Assembly in Annapolis.

"We will be working to that end," said Lee Stallings, president of the 225-member Hemlock Society of Maryland. The group has mailed a survey to 1,606 physicians in the state asking their opinions on a range of terminal care matters, including doctor-assisted suicide.

Stallings expects that issue to take the form of a bill before the General Assembly within a year or two. And if that happens, such a bill may find a supporter in Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-11th, who has had a career as nurse.

"One person's euthanasia is another person's pain relief," Hollinger said. "I believe that people, particularly when they're competent, should have choices at the end of life."

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