Maryland bishops denounce assisted-suicide bill

Lori Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, at the USCCB's fall meeting Nov. 15, 2023. | Credit: Joe Bukuras/CNA

The bishops of Maryland have written an open letter denouncing state legislators’ decision to consider an assisted-suicide bill and calling for “a better path forward.”

“We are deeply disappointed to learn that once again the Maryland General Assembly will debate whether to legalize physician-assisted suicide,” the Jan. 30 letter from the Maryland Catholic Conference said.

Assisted-suicide bills have been considered in Maryland since the 1990s — and most recently in 2023 — but have never passed.

Signed by Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, Washington archbishop Cardinal Wilton Gregory, and Wilmington Bishop William Koenig, the letter said that the bill “puts our most vulnerable brothers and sisters at risk of making decisions for themselves that are manipulated by factors such as disability, mental instability, poverty, and isolation.”

“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 letter 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,” the bishops continued. 

The bill, titled the End-of-Life Option Act, was introduced in both the House and Senate in mid-January. 

The legislation would allow individuals with a terminal illness to request assisted suicide from a physician. 

Terminal illness is defined in the bill as “a medical condition that, within reasonable medical judgment, involves a prognosis for an individual that likely will result in the individual’s death within six months.”

The process for requesting “aid in dying” consists of making an oral request to one’s physician and then submitting a written request. The individual must then make another oral request to the physician at least 15 days after the first oral request and 48 hours after the written request. No one can request assisted suicide on behalf of the patient.

According to Death with Dignity, 11 states have legalized the practice: California; Maine; Oregon; Colorado; Montana; Vermont; Washington, D.C.; New Jersey; Washington; Hawaii; and New Mexico.

“For all legal rights and obligations, record-keeping purposes, and other purposes governed by the laws of the state, whether contractual, civil, criminal, or otherwise, the death of a qualified individual by reason of the self-administration of medication prescribed under this subtitle shall be deemed to be a death from natural causes, specifically as a result of the terminal illness from which the qualified individual suffered,” the legislation says.

In their letter, the bishops said: “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.” 

They cited modern “medical advancements” that can be used to help individuals with terminal illnesses to be “comfortable and improve the quality of the remainder of their lives without them feeling the need to reluctantly choose a ‘dignified death.’”

The bishops called on Marylanders to improve end-of-life care, writing that “it is incumbent upon each of us to ensure that those at the end of their lives can experience a death that doesn’t include offering a form of suicide prescribed by a doctor.”

“We believe our elected officials should work to improve access to the network of care available to Maryland families by increasing access to palliative and hospice care, enhancing end-of-life education and training opportunities for physicians, and ensuring that there is appropriate diagnosis and treatment for depression and other mental and behavioral health issues,” the letter said.

They also pointed to the lack of “safeguards” in the bill.

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“The proponents of this legislation claim that this policy offers an ‘option’ to a very small set of individuals who are suffering from a terminal illness with less than six months to live, claiming this option will help them maintain control and dignity during their final days on earth,” the letter said.

“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,” the letter said. “Such safeguards include mandated mental health assessments, reporting requirements, safe disposal of unused medication, or prohibitions against expansion of this program.”

The letter said that in every state where assisted suicide has been legalized, “grave abuses and expansion have occurred,” which makes the lethal practice “available to far more people and not just those facing imminent death.”

“There is a better path forward for the people of Maryland, and it does not involve suicide,” the letter said.

“We urge all people of goodwill to demand that our lawmakers reject suicide as an end-of-life option and to choose the better, safer path that involves radical solidarity with those facing the end of their earthly journey,” the letter said.

In recent weeks, residents of Massachusetts and New York were also urged by bishops and pro-life advocates to oppose assisted-suicide bills upcoming in their states.

In Massachusetts, the “End of Life Options Act” says that “a terminally ill patient may voluntarily make an oral request for medical aid in dying and a prescription for medication” if the patient is a “mentally capable adult,” a resident of Massachusetts, and has been determined by a physician to be terminally ill.

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In New York, the “Medical Aid in Dying Act” would also allow a terminally ill patient to request medication that would put an end to his life.

“Lawmakers need to hear from their constituents if we hope to avoid yet another assault on human life here. Assisted suicide is dangerous for patients, caregivers, and vulnerable populations such as the elderly and people with disabilities,” the New York State Catholic Conference said.

In Massachusetts, the pro-life group Massachusetts Citizens for Life told supporters that “the bill clashes with cultural, religious, and philosophical beliefs against intentionally ending human life.”

According to Death with Dignity, 16 other states are considering assisted suicide legislation in 2024.

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