By Catholic News Agency     3/17/2015

Annapolis, Md. (CNA/EWTN News) – A physician-assisted suicide bill in Maryland preys on those who are vulnerable or disabled, and promotes suicide as an acceptable solution to life’s problems, said critics testifying before the state’s lawmakers.

Among those testifying against the bill was Super Bowl-winning former NFL player O.J. Brigance, who was diagnosed eight years ago with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

Sitting in a wheelchair and speaking through a voice-generating machine, he recounted how he was able to accept the initially “overbearing burden” of his diagnosis, which generally means death within two to five years. The former football player has gone on to become a senior advisor for the Baltimore Ravens, write a book, and start a foundation to help those living with ALS.

“Since being diagnosed, I have done a greater good for society in eight years than in my previous 37 years on earth,” Brigance said.

“Because I decided to live life the best I could, there has been a ripple effect of goodness in the world.”

Maryland’s proposed “Death with Dignity” Act would allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication for patients deemed “competent” who have terminal diagnoses of six months or less.

A handful of states currently allow for physician-assisted suicide, and a number of others have seen efforts to legalize the practice in recent months. Colorado saw a similar measure rejected last month, after it received staunch opposition from disability rights groups who said that it was ripe for abuse and unfairly discriminated against the disabled.

Critics of assisted suicide measures say that such laws send the social message that suicide is an acceptable, or even preferable, way to handle pain and suffering. When this is the case, they argue, the disabled and vulnerable are at risk of pressure – from family members, insurance companies, or society in general – to end their own lives.

They also note that “terminal” diagnoses are sometimes mistaken and voice fears that physician-assisted suicide could lead to the legalization and acceptance of involuntary euthanasia for those deemed unworthy to live.

Several of these concerns were also raised in regards to the Maryland proposal.

“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,” stated Mary Ellen Russell of the Maryland Catholic Conference in her written testimony before lawmakers.

“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.”

Aside from the moral problem of physician-assisted suicide itself, the bill is severely flawed, argued the Maryland Catholic Conference.

The conference noted that the bill does not require patients to undergo a mental health screening for illnesses like depression, which may influence the request for death. Some studies have found that many patients, when treated for depression, withdraw their request for assisted suicide.

In addition, the conference observed, patients’ families do not have to be notified of their decision; doctors may only “recommend” they should. And no medical professional has to be present when the patient ingests the lethal dose of medication, which could lead to situations of abuse or fraud if the wrong person, intentionally or unknowingly, takes the fatal medication.

“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,” Russell stated.

While it’s understandable that someone with a terminal diagnosis would be afraid, that fear should be met with compassion rather than a lethal prescription, she continued.

“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.”

Russell invoked the words of Pope Francis in suggesting that the term “quality of life” is misinterpreted to mean material quality of life, “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,” she quoted Pope Francis.

Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities emphasized to EWTN News Nightly on Jan. 5 that assisted suicide bills target the vulnerable.

The sick and the elderly who have received terminal diagnoses are frail and may think they are a “burden” to their families and society, he said. When states prohibit suicide generally, but allow it for these particular cases, they actually discriminate against this population.

“That’s not a free-choice issue, that’s a discrimination issue. That’s the state saying ‘your life is not worth living’,” Doerflinger said.