Outlaw suicide assistance, Senate panel is urged

February 23, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland should make assisted suicide a felony or risk the arrival of a home-grown version of so-called death doctor Jack Kevorkian, several groups told a state Senate committee yesterday.

Some doctors, local Catholic leaders and the state attorney general's office warned of potentially dire consequences unless Maryland makes it an explicit crime to help terminally ill people kill themselves.

If state law remains unclear on the issue, they said, some doctors may encourage patients to commit suicide, especially if they are poor, handicapped, elderly or uninsured.

"To sanction assisting in the suicide of some of these persons out of mercy suggests that their lives are of low quality and that they are expendable," said Dr. John Collins Harvey, who teaches medical ethics at Georgetown University's Medical Center.

"The Nazi holocaust came from the legal sanctioning of eugenics experiments in Germany," he said.

Dr. Harvey and others support a bill making assisted suicide a felony punishable by a maximum of three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The legal status of helping someone commit suicide is somewhat murky in Maryland, although euthanasia -- taking the life of a terminally ill spouse, for example, so as to end suffering -- is clearly illegal.

No one knows whether any Maryland doctors have helped patients kill themselves, said Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions and advice in the attorney general's office. That office drafted the bill for its sponsor, Democratic Sen. Michael J. Collins of Baltimore County.

On the other side, a Maryland supporter of Dr. Kevorkian said terminally ill patients should be able to end their own suffering with a doctor's help, if they so desire.

"We cannot always live as we please, but we should be able to die as we please," said John C. Tydings Jr., a real estate appraiser from Catonsville.

Mr. Tydings put up $100 bond in December to release Dr. Kevorkian from jail. Dr. Kevorkian is a Michigan pathologist who advocates assisted suicide for the terminally ill. He has been present at 20 deaths since 1990 and has been charged in connection with several of them.

All but one case was dismissed, however. He faces trial in April for helping a man with Lou Gehrig's disease -- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- commit suicide last summer.

Some judges have ruled that Michigan's law banning assisted suicide is unconstitutional. But Mr. Schwartz assured lawmakers yesterday that the Maryland bill would be constitutional if passed.

Besides Michigan, 31 other states have explicit laws against assisted suicide, according to Richard J. Dowling of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

The Maryland bill's future in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is uncertain. The chairman, Sen. Walter M. Baker, questioned yesterday whether it was necessary to deal with the issue at all now.

"It could be close on whether this bill will pass, because some would rather take a wait-and-see approach, said Vice Chairman Norman R. Stone Jr., a Democratic senator from Baltimore County.

Some opponents of Senator Collins' bill said they feared it would make doctors reluctant to prescribe enough painkillers for terminally ill patients.

High doses of pain medicine can shorten lives, and doctors may be afraid to prescribe them for fear of being charged with assisted suicide, said Ellen Callegary, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

"I fear this bill will prolong the painful dying process," she said.

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