By Erik Zygmont
ANNAPOLIS – Testifying before members of the House of Delegates Feb. 16 in opposition to the End-of-Life Option Act, which would legalize physician-assisted suicide in Maryland, Jennifer Briemann spoke on behalf of the Maryland bishops with a personal story.
Seven years ago, her mother was in the end stages of renal failure. A kidney transplant from a deceased donor was out of the question because the wait would have been much longer than her prognosis.
“She was desperate, devastated and exhausted,” said Briemann, who is associate director for respect for life with the Maryland Catholic Conference, the state’s bishops’ legislative lobbying arm.
Briemann told members of the House Judiciary Committee and Health and Government Operations Committee that she sometimes wonders if her mother would have opted for lethal medication if the option had been available.
“I’d like to think not, but with no requirement for family notification or no requirement for even a witness to be present when the medication is ingested, there’s no way of knowing,” she said, adding that her mother often spoke of feeling like a burden.
After despair had set in and other opinions offered the same dire prognosis, a physician from the University of Maryland Medical Center was the first to raise the remote possibility of a successful transplant from a live donor.
Her mother lived to see Briemann’s wedding and the birth of her child.
“All of that meant so much to me, because it was my kidney that saved her life,” Briemann said, adding that her mother would have joined her in Annapolis to testify against the bill, too, but she was “at home with my son, her grandson, and loving every minute of it.”
The hearing, the first of the year on one of the more contentious issues before the legislature, lasted seven hours, with proponents and opponents trading emotional testimonies.
The Richard E. Israel and Roger “Pip” Moyer End-of-Life Option Act would allow patients with prognoses of likely death within six months to obtain prescriptions for lethal medication. The patient must make three requests – one in writing – to his or her “attending physician” for the prescription.
A “consulting physician” must confirm the attending physician’s diagnosis of a terminal illness and that the patient is making an informed and voluntary decision.
The bill does not include an automatic mental health screening; either physician is required to refer the patient for one if, in his or her medical opinion, “an individual may be suffering from a condition that is causing impaired judgment or otherwise does not have the capacity to make medical decisions.”
Once the patient obtains the prescription and the drugs, likely 100 barbiturate pills, he or she consumes them at will.
Proponents argue that the bill would give the dying an option to avoid suffering and end their lives on their own terms.
“I believe adult American citizens should be entitled to maximum autonomy and personal freedom,” said Del. Chris West, a Republican representing parts of Baltimore County and a co-sponsor of the bill. “I don’t want a nanny government controlling my body.”
The Catholic Church holds that all human life, from conception until a natural death, is sacred. Opponents of the bill, however, largely argued on practical, rather than metaphysical, grounds.
Katie Collins-Ihrke, executive director of Accessible Resources for Independence, argued that legalizing physician-assisted suicide would create “a two-tiered system of suicide, where one side gets a suicide prevention pamphlet and the other gets a prescription for lethal medication.”
Collins-Ihrke, whose organization provides support and services for people with disabilities in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, added that those in the second group will have conditions that – like disabilities – limit personal autonomy.
“Let’s be clear,” she said. “Not everyone who has a disability has a terminal diagnosis, but everyone who has a terminal diagnosis has a disability.”
Legalizing physician-assisted suicide, Collins-Irke said, would devalue “this group of people that has more medical needs and more health needs.”
Sheryl Grossman is the 72nd person diagnosed with the exceedingly rare Bloom’s syndrome, which has caused her to be both very small and prone to cancer.
“As a disabled person, this bill scares me even more, because I know these societal barriers of stigma and discrimination,” she said. “It’s been my whole life.”
Sheryl Grossman, the 72nd person diagnosed with Bloom’s syndrome, testified Feb. 16 in Annapolis against the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. (Erik Zygmont/CR Staff)
Grossman recounted how as she was undergoing treatment at a Baltimore hospital for her seventh cancer, a lymphoma that had metastasized, a physician who was a department head entered her room.
“She said, ‘You know, you don’t have to do this anymore,’” Grossman recalled. “‘You have been through so much. You can stop at any time; it’s OK. We can simply turn off the machines or increase your pain meds. It won’t take long; you’re 37 pounds.’”
“I gave my last conscious energy to trying to scream, ‘No,’ and to trying to get her out of my room,” Grossman said.
“I love my life,” she said. “Ladies and gentlemen, I fear that if this law were on the books then, I wouldn’t still be here today. It’s far too easy to coerce someone into thinking themselves a burden, from medical care staff to family members. It’s far too easy to make us think that our care is costing too much and draining those around us.”
Dr. G. Kevin Donovan, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Edmund D. Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics in Washington, D.C., offered a succinct explanation of how the bill “would irrevocably alter the practice of medicine and the doctor-patient relationship.”
“We would be allowed, even encouraged, to think that killing the sufferer is the way to prevent suffering,” he said.
In the medical field, he added, “when something is permissible, it becomes habitual.”
“When something is habitual, it becomes standard of care. When something is standard of care, it becomes obligatory.”
Donovan also offered a counter to the argument that the bill would simply give people autonomy in determining their own fate. If it were truly about autonomy, he argued, then lethal medication would not be restricted to terminal patients with six-month prognoses.
“Why not nine months?” he asked. “Why not 12 months? Why not whenever they want it, whether they’re terminal or not?”
The bill will be heard March 7 by the State Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.