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House: “Death with Dignity” Act

House: "Death With Dignity" Act

House Bill 1021: Oppose

Judiciary

House Bill 1021 would allow doctors to legally prescribe a lethal dose of medicine at the request of a patient who has been deemed mentally competent and who has received a terminal diagnosis. The Conference joins many in the faith community who oppose this legislation, not only because it violates the most basic tenet of our belief in the sacredness of life, but also because of the many dangers the legislation poses to vulnerable populations.

Our concerns about the bill are shared by numerous other groups, including members of the medical community, disability groups, advocates for vulnerable elders, and others.  From the perspective of the Church, however, we wish also to convey our deep dismay about the message this legislation sends to those who might feel that their illness and the care they require is nothing more than a burden to their families and the rest of society.

            At the heart of our ministry to the sick, to those with disabilities, to those without access to adequate medical care, and to the frail elderly is a recognition of the Gospel call to embrace the lives of those most in need of our love, our care, and our compassion.  There is no life that we consider not worth living, no person who does not deserve to be valued simply because they are a living human being.  While some may view this legislation as a response to the understandable fears about pain and a loss of “dignity” that someone diagnosed with a terminal illness might face, we insist firmly that the answer to those fears should be a demand for appropriate medical treatment that provides adequate pain management and excellent palliative or hospice care.  A terminally ill patient requesting a prescription to commit suicide deserves to be surrounded by compassion, not handed a prescription to take his or her life.

            Despite claims that the legislation includes adequate safeguards to protect patients’ lives, the bill is significantly flawed.  The legislation is based on the premise that it would only apply to terminally ill patients who have been diagnosed as having six months or less to live. It is patently clear, however, that it is nearly impossible for the medical community to predict with accuracy when a patient might die.  By allowing a doctor to provide supposedly terminally ill patients a prescription to end their lives, the legislation could potentially deprive families and loved ones valuable months and even years that they might have spent together.

            The bill also does not include a clear requirement that a patient requesting a prescription to commit suicide be screened for depression.  It is entirely up to the discretion of the patient’s “attending physician” or “consulting physician” to decide whether the patient should be referred for a “competency evaluation.” Neither the attending or consulting physician are required to have any expertise in evaluating a patient’s mental health.  In addition, even if a competency evaluation is performed, it is only required to determine whether a patient is “competent” and not suffering from “impaired judgment,” not specifically whether a patient is suffering from depression. As a result, the bill essentially allows a doctor to provide a patient a lethal prescription to take his or her own life without any requirement that the patient first be offered appropriate therapeutic interventions to ensure his or her request isn’t simply the result of an understandable depressed condition upon learning they have a terminal diagnosis.

            Of grave concern is the fact that the bill includes no requirement that anyone from the medical community or otherwise be present when a patient ingests the lethal prescription, which customarily includes 90 or more pills.  Once a doctor provides the prescription, there is no further monitoring required to determine whether a patient might in the end be pressured to take the medication          , to determine what might happen if the patient’s suicide attempt is unsuccessful, or to determine what happens to the medication if the patient eventually decides not to take it.  

            Pope Francis has touched the hearts of people throughout the world through his genuine and loving witness to the value of all life, and most especially the lives of the vulnerable.  In his words, “In many places, the quality of life is related primarily to economic means, to ‘well-being,’ to the beauty and enjoyment of the physical, forgetting other more profound dimensions of existence — interpersonal, spiritual and religious. In fact, in the light of faith and right reason, human life is always sacred and always ‘of quality.’ There is no human life that is more sacred than another — every human life is sacred — just as there is no human life qualitatively more significant than another.”  We urge the members of the House Health and Government Operations Committee and the House Judiciary Committee to uphold the true dignity of life by opposing House Bill 1021.

The Maryland Catholic Conference represents the mutual public-policy interests of the three (arch)dioceses serving the state of Maryland, including the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Archdiocese of Washington, and the Diocese of Wilmington.  We offer this testimony in OPPOSITION to House Bill 1021.