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Church leaders, physicians, people with disabilities ready to oppose Maryland’s latest effort to impose physician-assisted suicide

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Bishops of the Maryland Catholic Conference include, from left, Bishop William Koenig of the Diocese of Wilmington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of the Archdiocese of Washington and Archbishop William Lori of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

The Maryland General Assembly has again taken up bills that would legalize physician-assisted suicide with committee hearings scheduled on House Bill 0403 and Senate Bill 0443 in early February.

Maryland’s bishops released a statement in English and Spanish Jan. 30 expressing disappointment that the Legislature is again debating the issue.

“The central tenet guiding our opposition to this deadly proposal is that all human life is created in the image and likeness of God and therefore sacred,” the statement released by the Maryland  Catholic Conference said. The letter was signed by Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori; Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of the Archdiocese of Washington, and Bishop William Koenig of the Diocese of Wilmington, Del., whose dioceses encompass parts of Maryland.

“In 2024, medical advancements and improvements in pain management mean we can make individuals with terminal illnesses comfortable and improve the quality of the remainder of their lives without them feeling the need to reluctantly choose a ‘dignified death’” the statement said.

The bishops said physician-assisted suicide purports to provide an option to a small set of individuals suffering from terminal illness, with less than six months to live.

READ MORE: Once again, a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide will most likely be brought before the Delaware General Assembly.

“This legislation ignores the reality facing many in such conditions and is woefully lacking in the types of meaningful safeguards that would prevent this unnecessary and drastic option. Such safeguards include mandated mental health assessments, reporting requirements, safe disposal of unused medication or prohibitions against expansion of this program,” the bishops said.

The statement noted that in every country or state where PAS has been legalized, grave abuses and expansion have occurred, and that vulnerable people – including those with disabilities, the poor and those who are isolated – can be manipulated.

“Maryland has accurately recognized that suicide is a serious public health concern in the general population and has offered substantial resources to address the concern,” the bishops’ statement said. “At a time when our nation is grappling with how to address a frighteningly high suicide rate it is deeply illogical for the State of Maryland to be seeking ways to facilitate suicide for those with a terminal illness, all the while claiming such preventable and unnecessary deaths are somehow dignified.”

Jennifer Kraska, Maryland Catholic Conference executive director.

In an interview with Catholic publications serving Maryland, Jenny Kraska, MCC executive director, said the bill does not differ from past years, other than the name of the bill and primary sponsors. The measure has failed in past years, often not getting voted out of committee.

She noted that proponents of the legislation make it seem as though the patient, after filling a prescription, simply takes a batch of lethal pills and drifts off to sleep.

“They package it as a very nice (way) to say goodbye to everyone, get your last hugs and well wishes and you just sort of fall asleep and don’t wake up. That’s probably the furthest from the truth of what actually happens.”

The reality, she said, after reading stories about people who have undergone the process, is much different. The regimen requires opening up about 100 capsules of medicine and mixing the medicine into soft food such as yogurt or oatmeal, all of which must be consumed.

Kraska said that sometimes the medication burns the throat as it goes down. It can take “anywhere from hours to days to pass away, and during that time it can be painful; it can be excruciating.”

For those standing by, it can be distressing to watch their loved one have a hard time catching their breath.

Another concern is that there are no controls if the person fills the prescription “just in case” and never uses it. That leaves dangerous pills in the home where they can be misused or abused by other family members.

“There’s no disposal method written into the law,” Kraska said. “There’s no way to track what happens to them. … It’s ripe for abuse.”

She said she hopes the state would focus more on hospice and palliative care, which though related are not the same. The benefits of hospice care came to the forefront especially in February 2023 when former President Jimmy Carter, then 98, entered hospice care, which allows for pain management and assists families with preparing for death and loss.

Kraska hopes legislation will be introduced in Maryland to provide better access to palliative care, which focuses on managing the symptoms and stress of an illness, while ensuring the patient is as comfortable as possible.

Making palliative care part of Medicaid or more available through insurance would be an option.

Both hospice and palliative care are about providing quality care at the end of life, whether the prognosis is six weeks, six months or six years, she said.

The state should help people “get this type of care that helps treat and helps make things more comfortable for them as they progress in their in their illness.”

Kraska said better education is necessary, not only for patients and families but also for doctors and nurses, since people can be fearful if they don’t understand what’s happening or their options.

The Maryland Catholic Conference is working again with a coalition, Maryland Against Physician-Assisted Suicide, which expects to provide testimony at upcoming hearings. Kraska said the voices that resonate best in these hearings are those of the medical community and disabilities rights community.

“Those who have been suffering from illness themselves or have had stories with family members who have had really wonderful experiences with end-of-life and hospice and palliative care want to promote that,” she said.

The MCC plans to submit written testimony stating its opposition to PAS.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee will take up the bill Feb. 8. In the House, a joint committee hearing between the House Government Operations Committee and the House Judiciary Committee will be held Feb. 16.

If the bills pass these committees, they will go to their respective floors for votes by the entire membership of each chamber. If it passes, then it goes to Gov. Wes Moore (D), who has indicated his support.

For information on the legislation or to follow updates from the Maryland catholic Conference at http://www.mdcatholic.org/joincan. Those who wish to contact their legislators about the bill can write to legislators via the MCC network.