With less than three weeks left in the Maryland General Assembly, several pieces of legislation are advancing that are of concern to Catholics. To stay up to date with these issues and more, join the Maryland Catholic Conference Advocacy Network.

Physician assisted suicide

The Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has delayed its vote on the “Richard E. Israel and Roger ‘Pip’ Moyer End-of-Life Option Act” (HB 399), which the Maryland House of Delegates passed in a narrow 74-66 vote on March 7. This bill would make it legal for adults deemed mentally capable and who have a prognosis of six months or less to receive a prescription for a lethal dose of drugs to end their life.

The Senate may consider amendments to the bill to address some of the opponents’ concerns, such as an amendment to require the patient to receive a psychiatric evaluation before receiving the lethal does of drugs. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee was originally expected to meet last week to discuss the bill and those potential changes, and Compassion & Choices, the main proponents of the bill, held a press conference urging them not to make “excessive amendments” to the legislation. Soon afterward, the committee chairman, Senator Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat serving District 11, postponed that meeting.

According to the Maryland Catholic Conference, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is still expected to meet in a closed session to discuss HB 399 line by line before it holds a public session to discuss and vote on the bill and any proposed amendments, but the committee has not yet scheduled that meeting, and it has also not scheduled a vote on the bill.

If the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee does vote to advance the bill, it will go to the full Senate for a vote. If the Senate passes the bill with amendments, the House will have to decide if it accepts the amendments, and if it does not, the Speaker of the House and the Senate President will each appoint representatives to a Conference Committee, which will consider both versions of the bill and draft a compromise version. Both chambers must pass the same version of the bill for it to go to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan for a signature or veto.

The Maryland Catholic Conference is encouraging Catholics in Maryland to contact their senators and urge them to vote “no” on the bill, because, according to the MCC, the measure sends the wrong message “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.”

“The Maryland Coalition Against Physician Assisted Suicide and its coalition partners are continuing to work together in strong opposition of this legislation,” said Therese Hessler, associate director of respect for life for the Maryland Catholic Conference. “Regardless of any amendments offered in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee or on the Senate Floor, there is no way to legislate safeguards to make this bill better. Passage of HB399 in any form would jeopardize the value of all life in Maryland, and would pose a very real threat to each of us and those we love.”

Fetal homicide

An amended version of Laura & Reid’s Law, legislation which is named after a woman and her unborn son who were both murdered by her partner, passed in the Maryland Senate on March 15.

The original version of the bill would have expanded the state's existing fetal homicide law to allow for prosecution when a fetus as young as eight weeks gestation is killed through a violent attack on a pregnant woman. Homicide is the number one cause for death of pregnant women in Maryland.

The amended version leaves in place Maryland’s existing fetal homicide law, which allows prosecutors to seek an additional murder charge when a woman who is 24 weeks or more pregnant is attacked and her unborn child is killed. Instead, it creates an enhanced penalty of up to 10 years in prison that courts can apply when a pregnant woman is a victim of violence, regardless if her unborn child is or is not harmed, at the hands of someone who knew she was pregnant.

"Today's vote was a critical step in protecting pregnant women from domestic violence," said Hessler. "Pregnant women in Maryland are at increased risk of domestic violence because we don't have laws on our books that allow our prosecutors and our courts the ability to take additional action when pregnant women are violently attacked and their unborn children killed. While we would have liked to have seen the original bill pass, we are pleased that something significant is being done to protect Maryland women and their children.”

The bill now goes to the Maryland House of Delegates for consideration.

BOOST Funding

In his proposed state budget, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan proposed to increase the funding for the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) scholarship program to $10 million for the 2019-2020 school year. The program received $7.6 million in funding for the current school year.

The BOOST Scholarship Program, which is now in its fourth school year, provides scholarships to low-income students to attend the nonpublic school of their choice. 

While the version of the budget that was passed by the House of Delegates on March 14 only included $5.5 million in funding for the BOOST program, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee restored the funding to $10 million in their version of the budget. Before the final version of the budget passes, it must go to a conference committee made up of appointed representatives from both the House and Senate, where the discrepancies in the program’s funding will be deliberated.

The state is now accepting applications for BOOST for the 2019-2020 school year.

Statute of Limitations

The Maryland House of Delegates passed legislation that would expand the state’s statute of limitations for civil cases of child sexual abuse, allowing people to sue those who abused them for damages in civil court regardless of when the abuse took place. This law would also apply retroactively, giving victims until October 2021 to file suit over abuse that occurred any time in the past.

Maryland does not have a statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of child sexual abuse, but it currently does for civil cases. In civil courts, plaintiffs must only prove that the abuse happened by a preponderance of evidence, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt.

The bill now goes to the Maryland Senate for consideration.