by Richard M. Doerflinger
November 10, 2000
As contested races and talk of recounts dominate election-year news coverage, one vote in New England is in danger of being overlooked. On November 7, the people of Maine voted against a proposed measure to legalize physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.
To be sure, that is not the way this measure was originally described to voters. Proponents placed their radical proposal on the state ballot using euphemisms tailored to win support: "Should a terminally ill adult who is of sound mind be allowed to ask for and receive a doctor's help to die?" No mention of assisting suicide or of doctors prescribing lethal drug overdoses. Perhaps it is not surprising that when opinion polls asked Maine voters to react to this question early in the year, over 70% said they could support the measure.
Yet the legislative proposal that would have been enacted by a "yes" vote was in some ways even broader than Oregon's current law allowing assisted suicide. The Maine proposal lacked Oregon's provision claiming that doctors couldn't select patients for death "solely because of age or disability." It had no provision requiring that pharmacists be notified of the lethal purpose of the prescriptions they might be asked to fill. And while it claimed to protect "conscientious objection" by Catholic and other hospitals, it would have forbidden those hospitals to discharge or penalize staff who participate in assisted suicides against hospital policy.
It was therefore an enormous relief to find the Maine proposal losing at the polls. The final vote against it seems to have been close – 51% to 49% – but in this particular election year, that seems fairly decisive. And we should recall that Oregon's unique law allowing assisted suicide was approved in 1994 by only 51% to 49%.
This turnaround – from 70% support to less than a majority – is due to a tremendous educational effort by Maine Citizens Against the Dangers of Physician-Assisted Suicide. This coalition of medical, hospice, disability rights, religious and other groups aired television and radio ads and distributed literature alerting Mainers to the real implications of this deceptively worded proposal. Proponents spent well over a million dollars to sell that proposal – almost all of it from out of state, as national groups like the Hemlock Society repeatedly solicited funds from their members in other states. But advocates of assisted suicide were matched in spending and out-organized by those fighting to uphold the dignity of terminally ill patients' lives.
Observers on all sides agree that the Catholic Church was an essential member of the broader coalition, and that the Church did a first-rate job of educating its own parishioners on the moral and legal realities of this issue. So effective was the Catholic witness that assisted suicide supporters aired radio ads accusing "one Church" of trying to tell Mainers what to do with their lives. This attempt at Catholic-bashing, which proved so effective in the Oregon campaign, seemed to fizzle in Maine. Everyone could see that the Maine Medical Society, Maine Hospice Council, and numerous other secular groups shared the Church's concern for the pressures that legalized assisted suicide could impose on vulnerable patients.
What of the national implications of this vote? It is interesting to recall what Dr. Peter Goodwin of Oregon Right to Die predicted during the Oregon campaign: "Once we have broken through, once voters across the nation see a system that works – with safeguards that protect everyone involved – I believe we will see death with dignity legislation sweep across the country" (Hemlock Quarterly, October 1993).
What has happened since? Proposals like Oregon's have been rejected by popular vote in Michigan and Maine. They have failed in every other state where they were introduced in legislatures. Since 1994, ten states have passed new laws against assisted suicide – either new bans, or laws strengthening existing bans. In 1997 Congress banned assisted suicide in all federal health facilities and programs. And a new federal law, the Pain Relief Promotion Act, has been approved twice by the House of Representatives and stands poised for a possible Senate vote during this year's "lame duck" congressional session. This bill would stop the current use of federally controlled drugs for assisted suicide in Oregon, and establish positive new programs for promoting pain management and training health professionals in palliative care for dying patients. (More information on the bill is available at www.passprpa.org, and at the web site of the Catholic bishops' conference, www.usccb.org/prolife/issues/euthanas/teststate.shtml.)
Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society, has said that passage of the Oregon law proved that the "time has come" for his agenda. It looks as though his time has come and gone. The sooner our nation turns away from the destructive false solution of assisted suicide, and unites to address the real needs of dying patients, the better for everyone concerned.
(Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.)