For the fourth time in five years, Maryland legislators are holding hearings for the “Richard E. Israel and Roger ‘Pip’ Moyer End-of-Life Option Act,” which would make it legal for adults deemed mentally capable who have a prognosis of six months or less to receive a prescription for a lethal dose of drugs to end their life. The main sponsors of the bill are Delegate Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat representing District 13 in Howard County, and Senator William C. Smith, Jr., a Democrat representing District 20 in Montgomery County.

The Maryland Catholic Conference is a part of a coalition called “Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide,” which opposes the bill. Therese Hessler, the conference’s associate director of respect for life, noted that the bill’s supporters argue it is a merciful and humane way to end someone’s suffering, and added,“no one loves suffering or wants to sees someone else suffer,” but she said the procedure that the bill would legalize involves “death by very strong, controlled drugs,” which “doesn’t necessarily end life in a way that is peaceful.”

“By the patient administering it to themselves, people can do it at home,” she said, noting that it “leaves a lot up in the air that can go wrong.”

In their written testimony for the Maryland House and Senate, the Maryland Catholic Conference noted, “In a time where opioid-related overdose deaths are increasing in Maryland…it seems woefully misconstrued to encourage the passage of legislation that would legalize a means of ending one’s life by prescribing a large dosage (typically 100 pills) of barbiturates or a compound mixture (usually morphine sulfate, Propranolol (Inderal), Diazepam (Valium), Digoxin) that a patient would self-administer.”

The main organization pushing for the bill to pass is “Compassion & Choices,” an Oregon-based non-profit. Mary Forr, the director of the Department of Life Issues for the Archdiocese of Washington, pointed out that the “compassion” that the group is advocating is “a false compassion,” because “true compassion means, ‘I’ll be there to suffer with you.’”

“What we are called as Catholics to do is to walk with someone through whatever struggles or journey they go through,” she said, noting that physician-assisted suicide “turns people into burdens” and “quantifies the worth of human beings based on what they can do.” This message is counter to the Catholic belief that a person’s dignity comes from the fact that they are made in the image and likeness of God, Forr said.

On Feb. 15, opponents of the bill wore all black with green stickers reading “NO assisted suicide” as they listened to testimony given to the House Health & Government Operations Committee and the Judiciary Committee during a joint hearing in the Maryland House of Delegates.

Kim Callinan, the CEO of Compassion & Choices, testified in support of the bill, saying it would make medical aid in dying “available for people looking for an option during the most difficult time in life,” and would allow them to avoid “the worst and hardest part of dying.”

Though Callinan claimed there was “not a single issue of abuse or coercion” in the states where similar bills have already been passed, opponents of the bill pointed out that it would be difficult to gather that data, since those who have take the lethal prescription are no longer alive to file such a report.

Diane Rehm, the former host of “The Diane Rehm Show” on National Public Radio, also testified in support of the bill, describing the painful process of death that her husband went through in 2014. When Parkinson’s disease had affected him so much that he could no longer feed himself or use the restroom himself, he asked his doctor to help him hasten his death, and his doctor told him the only way he could do so was to stop eating, drinking, or taking medication.

“I sat by my husband’s side day and night as he slowly died,” she said. “I could see the agony in his face.”

If the End-of-Life Option Act had been in place, she noted that he would have been able to “spare himself misery” and “spare us from watching him suffer.”

Following the testimony of the panel of proponents that included Callinan, Rehm, Rev. Charles McNeill, a Baptist minister, and Dr. Michael Strauss, the president of Marylanders for End-of-Life Options, legislators raised questions and concerns about the bill.

Some legislators were concerned that insurance companies could force patients to choose physician assisted suicide as their only option, since allowing someone to receive medical aid in dying would be less expensive than continuing treatments to keep them alive.

Del. Charles Sydnor III raised a concern about the cost of the lethal medication, which Callinan said came in different prescriptions, with a cheaper one costing about $500, and a more expensive one costing $5,000. A person who takes the more expensive medication will die in about 45 minutes, whereas a person who takes the cheaper one will take about two hours to die.

Ande Kolp, the executive director of The Arc Maryland, an organization that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, testified in opposition to the bill, noting that individuals with disabilities are considered vulnerable “not because of the severity of their disabilities,” but because many of them rely on others to do things like eat or bathe and often receive low incomes, both of which put them at higher risk of experiencing abuse.

In addition, “history has taught us we still have so much to learn about the prognosis for people with developmental disabilities,” she said, noting that in many cases they really do not know how long someone will live.

Edward Willard, a public policy analyst for The Arc Maryland who has cerebral palsy, also testified in opposition to the bill, saying he was “deeply concerned” the bill was being considered because of the frequent devaluing of the lives of people with disabilities.

Dr. Kevin Donovan, the director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., testified in opposition to the bill, raising concerns about how the bill requires doctors to “falsify death certificates” by saying the cause of death is the person’s terminal illness, rather than the lethal medication.

Other ethical concerns that he raised about the bill include the fact that palliative care is least available to hospitals serving economically disadvantaged patients, and that it “creates a new concept or definition that lives of certain persons no longer have sufficient value,” he said.

This poses a fundamental question of, “what gives lives value?” said Dr. Donovan, noting that it could be a person’s ability to function, age, intellect or contributions to society.

“When these are lacking, do the values of these people diminish?” he asked. “How will this judgment be made and by whom?”

Dr. Donovan also noted that if society redefines suicide as something good, “others will feel the pressure to do something good” and to “relieve the burden on family and society.”

Answering questions about how doctors determine a patient’s prognosis, Dr. Donovan said a six-month prognosis would only be “semi-accurate.” He went on to explain that a prognosis is determined by looking at the median point of death for people who have previously been diagnosed with the same illness.

Connecting two of Dr. Donovan’s main points, one legislator pointed out that if death certificates from people who took the lethal medication always listed their terminal illness as the cause of death, over time, the data collected could lead to inaccurate estimates of how long a person with that disease had to live.

Catholics who wish to speak to legislators about their opposition to this bill can attend Catholics in Annapolis on Feb. 21, where they can meet face-to-face and discuss their concerns. A full schedule of the day can be found here.