'Death with Dignity' Bill Would Allow Terminally Ill Patients to End Their Lives

By Grace Toohey

Alexa Fraser remembers her father as "a joy of life," like in the youthful portrait of him in her Rockville home. At 90, he killed himself after suffering from Parkinson's disease. This has sparked Fraser to advocate for the right to physician-assisted "death with dignity" in Maryland. (Photo: Grace Toohey)
Alexa Fraser remembers her father as "a joy of life," like in the youthful portrait of him in her Rockville home. At 90, he killed himself after suffering from Parkinson's disease. This has sparked Fraser to advocate for the right to physician-assisted "death with dignity" in Maryland. (Photo: Grace Toohey)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (Feb. 13, 2015)—Alexa Fraser, of Rockville, received a call in June from a close friend, telling her that her 90-year-old father had taken 19 pain pills in attempt to die—but it didn’t work.

Though it wasn’t an easy to hear, Fraser said, she understood what her father wanted to do, so they gave him space.

“I said there’s nothing to do but love him,” she said, holding back tears.

Later that day, he once again tried to end his life by cutting himself. But still, his body held on. Finally, he utilized his plan C, a gun to his head, to kill himself, Fraser said. Alex Fraser was an investor and lived in Kensington.

“It’s rotten, it’s terrible, it’s not how it should be,” Fraser, 57, said, ‘(But) it was not his worst scenario.”

Her father’s Parkinson’s Disease, which the National Parkinson’s Foundation defines as a neurodegenerative brain disorder without a cure, had slowly become more painful and he suffered many falls, Fraser said. He was terrified that he would end up in a nursing home where they would keep him alive beyond his will, she said.

Fraser, an environmental researcher who is studying to become a Unitarian Universalist minister, is optimistic that Marylanders could soon have the right to choose a dignified death, she said.

Her father didn’t have the option to have a doctor help him peacefully die upon his wish, she said, but House and Senate companion bills could soon change that.

State Senator Ron Young, D-Frederick and Washington, is sponsoring his chamber’s bill, which was introduced Monday in the Senate, and Delegate Shane Pendergrass, D-Howard, is sponsoring the House version, which she said she plans to introduce Friday.

The legislation includes many safeguards so the choice isn’t misused, Young said. The bill, which Young said is modeled after similar laws in Washington state and Oregon, requires each case to include a doctor’s certification that the patient is terminally ill—a prognosis of death within six months; a psychologist’s report confirming the patient is of sound mind; and at least two witnesses, including one who is not a relative or in any way a benefactor from the person’s death.

Named after two public servants—former Annapolis mayor Roger “Pip” Moyer, who died in January, and former assistant state Attorney General Richard E. Israel—the bill is a testament to their battles with Parkinson’s disease.

Israel lives in the Ginger Cove Retirement Community in Annapolis, said McShane Glover, who spoke on behalf of Israel about the Death with Dignity legislation because of the progression of his disease.

As a man of the law, Glover said, Israel is looking for a legal way to have a death that he considers dignified. Parkinson’s has taken away many of the 72-year-old's daily life functions, making walking, talking, eating and moving very difficult, she said.

“I just thought it was time to do it here,” Young said. “Some people like to say assisted suicide, but it’s not. It’s totally someone making the decision themselves.”

Proponents dislike the term assisted suicide because they say there no one is assisting or facilitating a patient’s decision to die, and more importantly, these are not cases of suicide, because patients are going to die soon either way.

Pendergrass, who will sponsor the bill in the House, said she has considered the right to die an important issue since she was young.

“As a young teenager, I watched my grandfather with Parkinson’s disease. He suffered enormously,” Pendergrass said. “He was completely mentally alert and aware, and his body became a prison for his mind. … I just believe it’s the right thing to do to give people the control of their destiny.”

It also helps to limit unnecessary pain, Young said, and it saves a lot of medical costs for everybody.

But for disability rights organizations, like Not Dead Yet, this is far from a civil rights issue.

“You really have to think about the impact on everyone, and there is no way to prevent mistakes and abuse from ending the lives of some people where it wasn't really their choice,” Diane Coleman, president and CEO of Not Dead Yet, a national, grassroots disability rights group that opposes all forms of assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Most concerning for Coleman were the top reasons people used Oregon’s death with dignity act, which she said were for feeling a loss of autonomy and dignity and feeling like a burden to others—not for pain.

“That sounds more like a duty to die than a right to die,” said Coleman, who has a neuromuscular disorder requiring her to use a motorized wheelchair.

Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a national organization dedication to advancing the disability rights movement with regards to autism, said he and his group also worry about the bill’s effects on already marginalized portions of society—like people with disabilities.

People with disabilities already face obstacles in the healthcare system, Ne’eman said, and legalizing the right to die would further exacerbate the problem.

Ne’eman, who has autism, said he doesn’t see nearly enough safeguards preventing any coercion, and in places where a similar law is in place, he doesn’t see any investigations of abuse.

But proponents of the bill say no one will be influenced or persuaded to do something they don’t want to do.

“The way the bill is written it is definitely someone making their own decision, knowing they are terminal and not wanting to go on, and capable of making that decision themselves,” Young said. “That’s an important difference.”

Donna Smith, Maryland liaison for the national right-to-die advocacy group Compassion and Choices, said that this choice doesn't have to be for everyone.

“If you talk to those that are facing terminal illnesses, and their families and caregivers, people don’t want to suffer,” Smith said. “There comes a point of time that there’s nothing medicine can do ... and the quality of life is unbearable.”

Compassion and Choices volunteer Sally Hunt, of Silver Spring, said that she doesn’t see why shutting off a ventilator can be okay, but the choice for a sound-minded person to die peacefully is not an option.

“If they want to, they should have the right,” Hunt said. She watched a close friend battle cancer, and when it came back the second time, she said she wished there could have been the option for her friend, instead of suffering.

But no matter how much support the bill could get, Hunt said, they still have to convince Gov. Larry Hogan, who is Catholic.

A spokeswoman for the governor would not speak specifically to this legislation last week.

"We are in the very beginning of a long legislative session, and as we all know, most bills have the tendency to look much different by the time April comes around,” Erin Montgomery said. “The Governor and his staff will be monitoring countless pieces of legislation as this session plays out over the next several months."

But in October, Hogan, then a candidate, told a diocesan magazine, The Catholic Standard, that he would oppose measures to legalize assisted suicide in Maryland. “I believe in the sanctity of human life, and I believe a physician’s role is to save lives, not terminate them,” he said.

Executive Director of the Maryland Catholic Conference Mary Ellen Russell said they do not support the idea of death with dignity, though she hadn’t seen the actual bill yet, because it inevitably pressures patients to choose something that is less burdensome on relatives and caretakers, and in terms of medical costs.

“Certainly the church would be opposed, we don’t see this as compassionate,” Russell said. “We think caring for others and end-of-life care is compassionate.”

Russell said there are better and more humane options for end-of-life care, including improving medical support to minimize suffering.

Similar Death with Dignity acts are in place in Washington, Oregon and Vermont, and many other jurisdictions are looking into the idea, including Washington, D.C.

But for Ne’eman, the focus of this issue should be on better, more dignified support services for people who are ill, aging or have disabilities, he said.

All Fraser is asking for is a choice, a non-imposing choice, she said.

“It is not for anybody to push, nudge, decide, recommend, influence,” Fraser said. “I think this is really just the next civil right, I think it is every person’s right to have options.”

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