First, he swallowed 19 pills.
When that didn’t work, he tried to slash his wrists, but the tremors in his hands made that impossible.
So finally, 90-year-old Alex Fraser took the gun that always sat next to his bed and shot himself, ending his battle with Parkinson’s disease.
“My father taught me that every person should have the choice about how they die,” said Alexa Fraser, his daughter, who lives in Rockville. “Futile or needless pain and suffering at the end of life was, to use his words, stupid.”
Fraser said she only wishes this state had a “death with dignity” law in place, which she said would have enabled her father to die peacefully and surrounded by family, instead of violently and alone.
The death with dignity, or physician-assisted dying, movement has recently garnered national attention following 29-year-old Brittany Maynard’s public decision to end her life after being told her terminal brain cancer would afford her only six months to live. The video she posted detailing her choice has received more than 11 million views.
Maynard, who died Nov. 1 after taking a lethal and legal dose of prescription medication, moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of the state’s Death with Dignity Act.
“I’ve been reading about Brittany Maynard and the idea that her mother and husband and stepfather could be there with her and know she was going peacefully and not worry — oh, how wonderful that would’ve been,” Fraser said. “I wish I could’ve been there with [my father] in a loving way,”
Along with Oregon, Washington and Vermont also have laws that allow doctors to prescribe terminally ill adults fatal doses of medication.
In Montana, the Supreme Court ruled that state law does not prohibit end-of-life care, while in New Mexico, a district court judge ruled that terminally ill, mentally competent adults have the right to end-of-life drug prescriptions.
But in this state, assisted suicide is considered a felony. It was banned in 1999 following a 28-19 vote in the state senate.
Fifteen years later, the debate over a person’s right to die was brought up in this year’s gubernatorial election when, during her failed run for the Democratic nomination, Del. Heather Mizeur pledged her support for a law allowing physician-assisted suicide.
“We want to continue to keep the conversation going after Heather really helped us to bring it up,” said Brandi Alexander, the regional campaign and outreach manager in this state for advocacy group Compassion & Choices. “It’s a right that terminal patients should have.”
Compassion & Choices has this state listed as a “state in progress,” meaning it is in the beginning process of becoming a “campaign state.”
“The most important part of transitioning to a campaign state is building support on the ground,” Alexander said. “Many people have reached out to me from Maryland saying they want to get involved in this.”
Advocates say they will eventually push for death with dignity legislation, something that might be more difficult after Tuesday’s surprising defeat of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown by Republican Larry Hogan. Brown had previously voted against prohibiting physician-assisted suicide while he was a Prince George’s County delegate.
Opponents, such as those affiliated with Maryland Right to Life, said physician-assisted suicide should remain banned.
“The last thing we should do is follow the example of a few states that are helping people end their lives, instead of helping them see their value and humanity,” said Jeffrey D. Meister, the group’s director of administration and legislation. “This isn’t something we want in Maryland.”
Meister said studying Oregon, which has allowed doctor-assisted suicide since 1997, highlights the problems with legalizing assisted suicide. Meister said it “threatens all people’s access to wanted health care” and “affirms the worst fears of a patient questioning his or her own dignity by helping one end one’s life.”
The group has an active petition urging people to “Help us Stop Doctor Prescribed Suicide From Coming to Maryland.”
“This is not something that’s concurrent with Maryland’s reputation as a healthcare leader in the nation,” he said.
Public support for the practice, however, is growing. A 2013 Gallup poll found 70 percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing medical assistance to “end a [terminally ill] patient’s life by some painless means” if the patient and his or her family request it.
Susan Dwyer, a philosophy professor who teaches a class on contemporary moral issues, said the question of physician-assisted suicide is going the way of same-sex marriage. When she first started teaching on the topic more than 20 years ago, public opinion was split about 50-50, and now “it’s like a no-brainer,” she said.
“I would anticipate that over the next 10 to 15 years, we’re going to see a movement toward more states enacting legislation legalizing physician-assisted suicide,” Dwyer said.
For some state residents, the issue is more than a hypothetical.
Catherine Weber, a 70-year-old Annapolis resident, watched her husband die of aggressive lymphoma eight years ago. Carl Weber, her husband of 23 years, was a founding faculty member at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who taught biological sciences.
Now, Weber herself is battling metastatic cancer that has spread from her breast to her bone marrow.
While she is in stable condition, her illness is terminal, and she said she doesn’t want to die as her husband did.
“The time will come where I’ll be at the end of the path,” Weber said. “The thought of being able to call it quits at that point would really lead to a lot of peace of mind. Nobody knows what they will do at the end, but to know that this is a possibility is really reassuring.”
Weber works with Compassion & Choices as a member of this state’s action team. Together with other members, she is working to educate people on what the death with dignity movement is in hopes of prompting legislation.
“Most people I’ve talked to said it could never happen in Maryland,” Weber said. “But I don’t take a ‘can’t happen’ at face value.”