‘Why was Chris Matthews on the dais?” This remains the question I am most frequently asked about the presidential-election campaign of 2012. The curious (frequently angry and disappointed) are referring to the Al Smith dinner, the fundraising dinner for Catholic charities — charities that are currently being threatened by Obama-administration policy. It has become a tradition in presidential-election years to invite the two candidates to the dinner. So there was the cardinal archbishop of New York — who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — hosting Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
To answer the question, permit me to focus on the surprising and underappreciated treasure of Election Day. I, a longtime Mitt Romney fan, was elated the morning of November 7. Not by Barack Obama’s reelection, obviously, but by news from Boston. I celebrated the defeat of Question 2, a Massachusetts ballot initiative that would have legalized assisted suicide in the Bay State.
The ballot measure was going to win. In October, two-thirds of voters supported it, according to polls. Then something happened. Unexpected people and newspapers were starting to sound a little bit like Sean Cardinal O’Malley, who had been urging opposition to the initiative all along. Vicki Kennedy, in particular, Senator Ted Kennedy’s widow, created a merciful break in the trajectory of the campaign. She described Question 2 as antithetical to Senator Kennedy’s legacy, writing that it “turns his vision of health care for all on its head by asking us to endorse patient suicide — not patient care — as our public policy for dealing with pain and the financial burdens of care at the end of life. We’re better than that. We should expand palliative care, pain management, nursing care and hospice, not trade the dignity and life of a human being for the bottom line.”
Acknowledging the best of intentions among those who favored the initiative, she wrote: “Most of us wish for a good and happy death, with as little pain as possible, surrounded by loved ones, perhaps with a doctor and/or clergyman at our bedside. But under Question 2, what you get instead is a prescription for up to 100 capsules, dispensed by a pharmacist, taken without medical supervision, followed by death, perhaps alone. That seems harsh and extreme to me.”
Mrs. Kennedy wrote about unknowables and about the grace that comes with unexpected joy. Senator Kennedy had been told he would have two to four months to live, “that he should get his affairs in order, kiss his wife, love his family and get ready to die.” Had the assisted-suicide measure voters struck down on Election Day been law then, Senator Kennedy could have asked a doctor to end his life. More important, a doctor — and this is where disability groups were especially worried — could have urged him to give up. Less money spent, fewer medical resources expended, and, of course, the suggestion that his family would be better off if they didn’t have to watch him suffer. But Mrs. Kennedy pushed against these cultural inclinations. In the case of her husband, “that prognosis was wrong,” she wrote. He would go on to vote in the Senate, speak at the 2008 Democratic convention, finish a book, and throw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game, “loving his family and preparing for the end of life.” She went on to talk about the gift she had in those last 15 months with her husband, which she wouldn’t have had if our reflex became to end life when things look dire.
The successful campaign against Question 2 is a testament to telling the truth. Of course, in politics, as in human relationships, telling the truth can be a challenge. It can be uncomfortable. It can seem too difficult. But we owe it to ourselves and one another. Especially when it comes to issues — literally — of life and death.
And the truth won out in Massachusetts. The victory — of a diverse coalition of Catholics and black pastors and disability-rights activists and liberal Democrats — stands as a lesson on other issues involving the dignity of human life.
The win in Massachusetts is an important one. It held back the floodgates and forestalled what could have been a domino effect throughout the country. Greg Pfundstein of the Chiaroscuro Foundation called it the “Roe v. Wade of doctor-prescribed suicide.” People saw the truth. They told the truth. They reflected on true compassion.
The truth was not widely heard this election cycle. The majority of Americans and the majority of the media believed that the Obama administration was somehow assuring access to contraception in this country, despite the fact that it is ubiquitous. Much of the country had very little idea that this administration has redefined religious liberty by making the claim that basic health care includes abortion-inducing drugs as well as contraception and female sterilization. More voters bought the claim that in order for women to be free in the United States, religious employers have to provide insurance coverage for these things they find morally objectionable. (This is a new radicalism: During his career, Ted Kennedy respected Americans’ conscience rights in legislating.) On a case involving a church-run school’s hiring practices, President Obama’s own Supreme Court appointees slapped him down on his administration’s new restrictive posture toward religious freedom. But the floodgates here had long been broken, as a cultural, never mind political, matter.
The answer to the question about Chris Matthews is this: A limited number of people are going to pay attention to a pro-life Catholic columnist from a conservative magazine writing about an administration policy to which she objects. A finite number of people will be in the pews every Sunday to hear about why we should value religious freedom and uphold the dignity of human life. But people are open to unexpected joy. And so, even though the MSNBC host had, just days before the dinner, said that the very teaching of his own church on abortion was akin to sharia , he was on that dais because, if you see a truth about the fullness of human life and freedom, you have to share it with all. You have to welcome all. And you have to make them feel welcome and loved. And then you tell them the truth and you live the truth. It might just catch on. After all, it worked in Massachusetts.