Bill to ban suicide aid is approved

Glendening expected to sign measure making assistance a felony

Debate was emotional

Supporters raise fears of `Kevorkianism,' vulnerable patients

April 09, 1999|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Legislation making it a crime to assist a suicide passed the General Assembly yesterday. Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to sign the bill and make Maryland the 38th state to explicitly criminalize the practice.

The bill passed the Senate 27-20 after days of emotional debate in which opponents argued it would have a chilling effect on doctors' attempts to ease pain at the end of life. Supporters repeatedly referred to Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan doctor who was convicted last month of second-degree murder in the death of an ailing man who asked to die.

"In this state, we don't want Dr. Kevorkian," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., sponsor of the bill.

Similar arguments have been raised in the assisted-suicide debate in other states as Kevorkian has become a household name.

In the past five years, five states have criminalized assisted suicide, according to Choice in Dying, a Washington D.C.-based group that says it does not take a stand on the issue. Oregon is the only state with a law specifically allowing assisted suicide.

Under the Maryland legislation, assisting or attempting to assist a suicide would be a felony punishable by up to one year in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.

Doctors or caretakers would be protected from prosecution if they give medication that is intended to ease pain and suffering but also may hasten death. This exception did not satisfy opponents who argued that the mere threat of prosecution would discourage doctors from prescribing strong pain-killers to the terminally ill.

"They will cut back on the amount of medication they give," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who helped lead opposition to the bill.

Glendening yesterday reiterated his support for the ban. He said he needed only to review recent amendments to make sure they are constitutional.

"We want a person to be able to die with dignity," Glendening said. "At the same time, it's important that we make sure that we do not open the door for people to prematurely take someone's life."

The real impact of the legislation is hard to predict. Supporters of the bill concede that assisted suicide has not been an issue in Maryland outside the General Assembly, and it can be argued that it is already a common-law crime, according to a state attorney general's opinion.

On the other hand, many who watch the issue nationally agree that doctors do participate in assisted suicides, even in states where it is illegal.

"There are studies out there all over the place saying that doctors are quietly helping patients die," said Marla Rothouse, a senior policy specialist who tracks various state assisted-suicide bills for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And with the exception of Kevorkian, who intentionally publicizes his cases, few assisted suicides ever come to light, much less get prosecuted.

"I'm not aware of there being many criminal prosecutions out there, if any, of physicians who have engaged in the practice, and of course they don't make it public knowledge the way Kevorkian has," said Carol E. Sieger, staff attorney for Choice in Dying. "Usually when there is some type of close bond going on between the physician, the patient and the family, when you have the family on board with what's going on, that would make it more difficult [to prosecute]."

Supporters of the legislation argue it should at least diminish the prospect of assisted suicide in such cases, and could have a more significant impact on managed care medicine.

"The people who are at greatest risk in a health care system which increasingly focuses on cost-benefit ratios and less on compassionate personal care are the poor, the frail elderly and the disabled," said Richard Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

Dowling also argued the bill "says to the vulnerable population, `You don't have to worry about the specter of Kevorkianism here.' "

Opponents suggested there are no parallels to Jack Kevorkian in Maryland and that even if there were, they'd be punished under existing law.

"Thank God in this state we don't have Dr. Kevorkian," Hollinger said. "[But] if we had a Dr. Kevorkian, he'd go to jail."

Pub Date: 4/09/99

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