During Maryland’s upcoming legislative session, which begins on Jan. 9, the Maryland Catholic Conference expects to see several pieces of legislation that would either challenge or protect the right to life in the state.

Maryland House Speaker Michael Bush (Democrat, District 30) is expected to introduce a bill that would place on the 2020 ballot an amendment to the Maryland Constitution that would guarantee the right to abortion. If that bill passed and the people of Maryland voted for the amendment in 2020, nobody would be able to introduce legislation in the General Assembly to regulate abortion, such as a Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act or a Dismemberment Abortion Ban.

The Maryland Catholic Conference would oppose this bill due to Church teachings about the sanctity of life and because they believe it would be a distraction from more pressing issues in the state such as the opioid epidemic, human trafficking, domestic violence, and assisting the poor.

“Based on Church teachings and what we know to be true that life begins at the moment of conception through a natural death, it is very important for us to work to protect that life at the earliest stages,” said Therese Hessler, the associate director of respect for life for the Maryland Catholic Conference, who added, “we know that that's an individual, uniquely created being in God's image,” who has a separate DNA structure from his or her parents.

“Not protecting that as a human right I think would be a huge failure from all of us as a society,” she said.

Maryland has not reported on the number of abortions that have taken place in the state since 2005, when it issued a voluntary report. According to that report, Maryland at that time had one of the highest number of abortions in the United States. In order to have a better understanding of what is occurring within the state, the Maryland Catholic Conference hopes to see a law passed requiring mandatory abortion reporting.

“We are one of the most unregulated states within the United States [in regards to abortion],” said Hessler.

The Maryland Catholic Conference also expects to see a bill introduced that if passed would bring the practice of physician-assisted suicide to the state. Though no such bill was introduced in the 2018 legislative session, it had been introduced in each of the three previous years and was defeated each time.

A coalition called Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide has been on the forefront of fighting against these pieces of legislation. It is made up of medical societies, disabilities rights organizations, suicide awareness groups and faith-based organizations, including the Maryland Catholic Conference. The coalition argues that introducing physician-assisted suicide in Maryland would put the state’s most vulnerable populations at risk, including those with developmental and intellectual disabilities, people experiencing poverty, the elderly, and those battling drug addiction.

The Maryland Catholic Conference plans to support a bill that would strengthen the state’s fetal homicide law. Currently, the law passed in 2005 only allows the charge of fetal homicide to be brought if the fetus is “viable,” which is generally interpreted to mean 24 weeks gestational age or older.

Homicide is the number one killer of pregnant women in Maryland, and African American women younger than 25 are the most affected. The pregnancy-associated homicide rate in Maryland is 10 times the national average. The Maryland Catholic Conference supports efforts to change the current law to protect more mothers and their children from violence.

For Catholics who are interested in getting involved in advocacy, the Maryland Catholic Conference hosts an annual gathering called “Catholics in Annapolis,” where Catholics from throughout the state of Maryland come together to meet with legislators. This year, the day will take place on Feb. 21 from 3-8 p.m. and will begin with praying a rosary for elected officials in the Miller Senate Office Building. Speakers will talk to the group about issues related to current the legislative session, then groups will have face-to-face meetings with their legislators and gather back together for a reception at the end of the evening.

The Maryland Catholic Conference aims to be “a voice for the voiceless,” said Anne Zmuda Wallerstedt, the Maryland Catholic Conference’s associate director of social and economic justice. Catholics in Maryland have the opportunity to join them in representing those who are unable to go to Annapolis to advocate for themselves.

“We really want to recognize that every single person has dignity in their lives,” said Wallerstedt.

To stay updated about the priorities of the Maryland Catholic Conference throughout the upcoming legislative session, join its Catholic Advocacy Network at www.mdcatholic.org/joincan.