Religious Leaders Say How Faith Informs Their Support for Maryland End of Life Option Act

Baptist minister asserts: “There is no Biblical doctrine anyone can stand on to oppose this bill”

Rev. Madison T. Shockley Pastor of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ

Various religious leaders who support Maryland’s medical aid-in-dying bill spoke passionately at a news conference today about how their faith informs their thinking on this peaceful dying option to end unbearable suffering, shared personal experiences showing the need for it, and respond to opponents’ arguments against it.

“There is no Biblical doctrine anyone can stand on to oppose this bill. What you will hear from those opposed to this bill won’t be Biblical, it will be traditional. Don’t let them confuse the two,” said Rev. Joseph Kitchen, an active member of the First Baptist Church of Glenarden. “My God is loving. My God is kind. My God is compassionate … Too many faith leaders, including those from my church, have developed this myth that the God we serve is limited. He isn’t. They will preach a version of an all knowing God who foresaw terminal illness, but won’t acknowledge one who would deliver solutions.”

The news conference was hosted by the lead sponsors of the End of Life Option Act (SB 701/HB 643), Shane Pendergrass, chair of the House of Delegates Health and Government Operations Committee, and Jeff Waldstreicher, vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Proceedings and Regulations Committee. It included faith leaders from Judaism, the Presbyterian Church, Unitarian Universalist Church, and United Church of Christ.

“As a pastor for 50 years, helping people face death has been a central part of my life in the church, including my youngest brother, William Rollie Smith. So agonizing was his pain that he begged his doctors to amputate his aching limbs,” said Rev. Dr. Paul Smith, pastor emeritus of the First Presbyterian Church, who lives in Montgomery Village, in written remarks. “Even our mother, a staunch Baptist, wished medical aid in dying could have been an option for him ... I urge our lawmakers to pass Maryland’s End of Life Option Act, so their terminally ill constituents don’t have to suffer needlessly at the end of life, and they can die peacefully at home, with their loved ones at their bedside.”

Last March, the Maryland Senate fell just one vote short of passing a heavily amended version of the bill approved by the House of Delegates. The prospects for enacting the bill into law are better in 2020 because of new Senate leadership and Governor Larry Hogan’s statement at the Annapolis Summit on Jan. 8 that he’s “willing to look at both sides of that issue.”

“I accompany people through illnesses and death as part of my work. Based on those experiences, I support this bill,” said Rev. Alexa Fraser, an ordained minister from the Unitarian Universalist church of Silver Spring who was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive type of gynecological cancer in December 2016. “I love life, I love being a parent to my 20-year-old son and serving as a minister. And now I know what I’ll likely die of. I want the ability to choose a peaceful death with my family around me rather than one filled with pain, or drowning in my bodily fluids.”

Since House of Delegates Health and Government Operations Committee Chair Shane Pendergrass first introduced the End of Life Option Act in 2015, five states have passed medical aid-in-dying laws: California, Colorado, Hawai‘i, Maine, and New Jersey, as well as neighboring Washington, D.C.

“While we treasure life, there comes a time when the compassionate thing to do is to allow terminally ill people to peacefully end their suffering,” said Floyd L. Herman, rabbi emeritus of Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore. “Terminally ill people already have the right to refuse treatment and this option just allows them to end their suffering more quickly.”

Since 1994, a total of nine states have authorized medical aid in dying: California, Colorado, Hawai‘i, Maine, Montana (via state Supreme Court ruling), New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, as well as Washington, D.C. Collectively, these 10 jurisdictions represent more than one out of five U.S. residents (22%) and have decades of experience successfully implementing this medical practice.

“The word minister comes from the Greek word meaning ‘to serve,’” said Rev. Madison T. Shockley, pastor of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, CA, where the medical aid-in-dying law has been in effect since 2016. “Our church members in our pews will call us to their bedside in their final hours and ask us for the relief that only faith can give. We dare not fail them.”

Public Policy Polling last February showed Maryland residents support medical aid in dying by a 3-1 margin (66% to 20%), including majority support from Catholics (65%), Protestants (62%), Jews (67%), and Muslims (52%). The Maryland State Medical Society adopted a neutral stance on the bill after a 2016 survey showed a majority of its members supported it.

Supporters of the End of Life Option Act include the ACLU, Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ, Compassion & Choices Maryland, League of Women Voters of Maryland, Libertarian Party of MarylandMaryland Congressmen Elijah Cummings and Anthony Brown, Marylanders for End-of-Life Options, Suburban Maryland Psychiatric Society, Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland, United Seniors of Maryland, and WISE (Women Indivisible Strong Effective).