Disabling Assisted Suicide
Why a deadly movement hasn't been contagious.
By Wesley J. Smith
Just about year assisted-suicide advocacy groups insist that they are on the verge of their next big legalization breakthrough. In 1998 it was supposed to be in Michigan, via a voter initiative. Early polls showed the proposal leading by a wide margin. But when the smoke cleared, the measure lost by a whopping 71-29 percent.
Then, in 2000, a Maine initiative was going to prime the legalization pump and get the new assisted- suicide laws flowing. Polls showed strong public support for permitting doctors to prescribe death for their patients. Unlike in previous state referendums, supporters of assisted suicide were better financed than their opponents, making their success a likelihood. So urgent was their desire for victory that Oregon activists, where assisted suicide is legal, even sent missionaries to promote the measure - including then-Governor John A. Kitzhaber. Yet, when the votes were cast and counted, Maine had rejected assisted suicide by 51-49 percent.
The next big threat came in Hawaii in May 2002. Pushed energetically by then-Governor Ben Cayetano, an euthanasia enthusiast, the Hawaii house of representatives passed a legalization bill 30- 20. It appeared stuck in a senate committee when, in an unexpected tactical maneuver, the bill reached the senate floor and passed on a snap vote, 14-11. But the measure needed a second affirmative vote to be sent to the governor's desk. Opponents pressed the lobbying pedal to the metal, accelerating from zero-to-100 in less than 24 hours. The next day, the bill failed 13-12, and the legislative session ended. A disappointed Governor Cayetano left office and the danger ebbed. In recent months, assisted-suicide advocates buzzed - and opponents worried - that Vermont was going to be "the place."
To prepare for the "Death with Dignity Act," proponents lobbied the Vermont Medical Society to drop its opposition. They were almost successful. The group took a vote of its members and, essentially, decided not to advocate any law. That could have helped promote passage. After all, the neutrality of the Oregon Medical Association was key in getting 51 percent of Oregon voters to approve assisted suicide in 1994. But it now appears that the early optimism of assisted-suicide advocates has, again, been dashed. The Rutland Herald reported earlier this month that the bill was dealt a "death blow" when "the heads of both the House and Senate Health and Welfare Committees said they won't take up the measure." All of this begs a crucial question: Why have American euthanasia activists, who triumphed so spectacularly when Oregon voters legalized physician-assisted suicide, been so spectacularly unsuccessful ever since?
The answer, I think, is found in the following Rutland Herald description of what led to the apparent downfall of the Vermont bill: The move comes after the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights, an advocacy group for the disabled, joined the Vermont Medical Society and Vermont Center for Independent Living [also closely affiliated with disability rights] in opposing the measure. It is also opposed by the Vermont Right to Life Committee and Burlington's Catholic Diocese. Note the prominence given to disability-rights activists; ten years ago, such a sentence would never have appeared in a media report. Then, opponents of assisted suicide were almost exclusively (if inaccurately) depicted as religiously motivated - even though medical, nursing, and hospice professional organizations also almost universally opposed legalization.
This misleading stereotype aided the assisted-suicide cause; it gave credence to euthanasia advocates' political strategy of casting their opponents as religious fanatics seeking to impose sectarian beliefs upon secular society. Toward this end, Oregon euthanasia activists ran a distinctly anti-Catholic political campaign on behalf of Measure 16. One radio ad featured an angry Oregonian accusing the Catholic Church of "putting out garbage" about the measure and "trying to control my life." Another falsely accused the church of imposing upon "every Oregonian" the religious belief that "suffering is redemptive and preserving physical life is always valued higher than relief of suffering."
After Oregon's law passed, both opponents and supporters of assisted suicide anticipated that this demagogic advocacy strategy would effectively break down what seemed to be weakening resistance among the public to the legalization of assisted suicide. But then, just when the situation seemed most bleak, disability-rights activists - who see disabled people as the prime targets of the euthanasia movement - powerfully entered the fray. And the tide began to turn. In 1996 disability activists formed NOT DEAD YET after Jack Kevorkian was acquitted after assisting the suicides of two w omen with non-terminal disabilities. (The group takes its name from a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) NDY immediately made news by picketing Jack Kevorkian's home and conducting a sit-in at the Hemlock Society's Denver headquarters. (The Hemlock Society, like a leopard trying to change its spots, recently renamed itself "End of Life Choices.")
Since then, eleven other national disability-rights groups have joined NDY in opposing legalized assisted suicide, and chapters have protested and taken other political actions against the euthanasia agenda throughout much of the country. The energetic commitment of the disabled-rights community, more than any other single factor, has thwarted the assisted-suicide movement. Because disability-rights activists are generally politically liberal, distinctly secular in outlook, and often supportive of abortion rights, the media can no longer caricature assisted-suicide opponents as religious busybodies. Moreover, people who would jump head first off a skyscraper if pro-lifers told them not to will listen to the opinions of disability-rights activists with open minds. As a result, some polls now show a sharp drop in the support for legalizing assisted suicide.
This "ecumenical" approach is now being applied to other issues that threaten the sanctity and equality of human life in the U.S. The disability-rights community has been deeply engaged in the struggle to save the life of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who a court determined should be dehydrated. They are also prime opponents of the neo-eugenics that permeate the bioethics movement. They have, for example, vocally opposed "futile-care theory," which would permit doctors to unilaterally refuse a patient's request for life-sustaining treatment, based on the perceived "quality" of that patient's life. Political conservatives and pro-life advocates will not always agree with the public-policy positions taken by the disability-rights community, and vice versa. But both realize that they have shared interests when it comes to some of the most important sanctity- and equality-of-life issues of our times.
The political maturity exhibited by their willingness to work together on issues on which they agree - without demanding that deeply held convictions on other issues be sacrificed - is a winning political strategy. Just ask the assisted-suicide movement: It's licking painful political wounds at the very time it expected to be enjoying electoral triumph.
Author Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.
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