For many years, the bunker-buster in the pro-assisted-suicide arsenal has been its supposed inevitability. Pointing to multiple public-opinion polls showing support for assisted suicide generally in the high 60-percent range, euthanasia advocates claimed that only a rigid, religiously motivated minority — e.g., Catholics — was keeping Americans from accessing the “ultimate civil right.” Soon, they cheerily predicted, the anti-assisted-suicide medievalists would be swept away by America’s unstoppable march to modernity.
How times have changed. The latest Gallup poll, which measured Americans’ views on “morally acceptable” and “morally wrong” conduct, indicates that support for assisted suicide is ebbing. According to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times, “Doctor assisted suicide is losing moral support — from moral to immoral,” with 49 percent of those polled now viewing PAS as “wrong” and only 45 percent considering it “acceptable.”
My own sense of the current zeitgeist is in accord with Gallup’s findings. In my ten years as an activist opposing assisted suicide, I first saw the pendulum swing broadly in favor of legalization, and then, in recent years, breathed a sigh of relief as it ever-so-slowly moved back against it.
When Oregon legalized assisted suicide in a public referendum in 1994 (Measure 16), activists on both sides of the issue — myself included — expected legalization to sweep the country. But that hasn’t happened. Indeed, assisted suicide has not taken a significant step forward in the United States since 1997, the year doctors began to legally write lethal prescriptions in Oregon. At this writing, the assisted suicide movement seems utterly becalmed.
Why the turnaround? I think the most important factor in the public’s shift away from assisted suicide has been the removal of religion as the primary flashpoint of the debate. Oregon voters passed Measure 16 in 1994 by a bare 51-to-49 majority after supporters of assisted suicide mounted an explicitly anti-Catholic campaign. For example, one “Yes on 16″ radio commercial claimed that opposition to assisted suicide was entirely “theological,” asserting:
They [i.e., the Catholic Church] believe suffering is redemptive and that preserving physical life is always valued higher than relief of suffering, no matter how humiliating and intolerable that physical life is. And they apply that standard not only to themselves but also to every Oregonian. They want to impose their unique theological perspective on the entire state.
Happily, this kind of anti-religious demagoguery doesn’t cut it anymore. Once disability-rights advocates came out against assisted suicide, a different picture emerged. Unlike Catholics, disability-rights advocates can’t be marginalized as theocrats. Their approach is overwhelmingly secular and politically liberal. Many support abortion rights.
When these leaders jumped into the fray claiming that assisted suicide was not really about “compassion” but, rather, about the targeting of disabled people as having lives not worth living, the entire debate was transformed. Soon, the assisted-suicide movement’s forward momentum in the United States began to stall. With the help of disability-rights activists, acting in alliance with medical professional organizations, the pro-life movement, and, yes, Catholics, Michigan voters rejected an assisted-suicide referendum in 1998 by a 71-29 vote.
This was an encouraging development. But the actual turning point came in 2000, in Maine. When assisted-suicide advocates qualified a legalization initiative for the November ballot, they thought they had the high ground: Maine’s demographics are remarkably similar to Oregon’s, and early polls showed broad public support for the initiative. But, unexpectedly, the strange-bedfellow political coalition transformed an almost-sure victory into a close race. Once the smoke had cleared and all the votes were counted, assisted suicide had been defeated by 51-49 percent, the mirror opposite of the result in Oregon in 1994.
Because much of the current case against assisted suicide is secular, people who once worried about the imposition of religion will now willingly consider arguments that might not have previously been heeded. For example, one of the most telling points made against assisted suicide — one which the euthanasia movement has never effectively countered — is that physician-assisted suicide, if it became widespread, could become a profit-enhancing tool for big HMOs.
People don’t trust HMOs. They know that profits under managed care come not through providing services per se, but from cutting costs. When people learn that the drugs used in assisted suicide cost only about $40, but that it could take $40,000 to treat a patient properly so that they don’t want the “choice” of assisted suicide, the financial forces at work become clear. It definitely didn’t help the assisted-suicide cause when an Oregon HMO executive at Kaiser Permanente, Northwest, wrote a memo asking Kaiser doctors to volunteer in the assisted suicides of plan members — even when they weren’t their own patients.
The other factor that has damaged the assisted-suicide movement, surprisingly, appears to have been Jack Kevorkian. Perceived as a hero by believers in euthanasia, and at one time supported by much of the public, Kevorkian vividly illustrated the actual indignity of the so-called “death with dignity” movement. Assisted suicide, advocates had assured the public, would be only a failsafe measure, the rare event to be used “as a last resort” to relieve the suffering of people who were about to die only when “nothing else could be done.” Yet, over 70 percent of Kevorkian’s “patients” were not even terminally ill. (Five weren’t sick at all, according to the autopsies.) Moreover, when Kevorkian removed the kidneys of a depressed disabled man following his assisted suicide, and then held a press conference offering the organs to the public for transplantation — “First come, first served” — his true ghoulish nature could no longer be denied.
The law finally held Kevorkian to account after he videotaped himself lethally injecting Thomas Youk, and then took the tape to 60 Minutes for airing on CBS in prime-time. After Kevorkian was convicted of murder, his allies in the assisted-suicide movement predicted a groundswell of public protests against the great man’s imprisonment. It was a demonstration to which nobody came. In the past few years, and despite repeated appeals by the Hemlock Society and other fellow-travelers to resurrect Kevorkian as an admired public figure, he has become the nation’s most forgotten man.
The Hemlock Society’s recent announcement that it must change its name to remain relevant in the public square is the clearest indication yet that assisted suicide has lost much of its luster. Once proud of its explicit association with suicide — it was named after the poison that Socrates used to end his own life — Hemlock executives now admit that they’re going to have to mask the organization’s ultimate raison d’etre. The name-change’s “goal,” wrote Faye Girsh, Hemlock’s former president, “is to increase membership, to accelerate name recognition and approval, and to work with legislators sympathetic to our mission, who find the name Hemlock offensive and difficult to explain.”
But what could be a more recognizable name than “The Hemlock Society?” It’s vivid. It’s unequivocal. It’s in-your-face. But that’s what appears to be the problem. The name isn’t being changed because it is not known among the public, but because it is.
Of course, none of this means that the assisted-suicide threat has passed. Even under the best of circumstances, the movement will remain with us for years to come. But the trend line, at least for now, seems to be heading in the right direction. Considering how things looked only six years ago, it is a dramatic turnaround worth celebrating.