NCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities
Michigan Buries Proposal B
In the most lopsided vote any state has yet cast on the issue, Michigan voters on November 3 rejected a ballot initiative designed to legalize physician-assisted suicide.
Proposal B was defeated 71% to 29% on election day. Final tallies show that the measure lost in each of Michigan's 83 counties, losing by more than a two-to-one margin in all but 14 counties. Even inner-city districts which supported Jack Kevorkian's attorney Geoffrey Fieger in his failed bid to be governor soundly rejected Proposal B.
California and Washington have defeated similar proposals in the past, but by a narrower margin of 54% to 46%. Oregon voters approved a legalization measure in 1994, 51% to 49%; in 1997, 60% of Oregon voters opposed a measure designed to repeal the new law.
An exit poll by the Detroit News provides further details on the vote. Proposal B was opposed more strongly by women, black voters, Republicans, and residents of Detroit; voters aged 70 or over rejected it by nearly a four-to-one margin. Voters who attend weekly religious services opposed the measure by more than a seven-to-one margin [Detroit News, 11/4/98].
Religious groups were active in the campaign against Proposal B, with the Catholic Church raising about half of the more than $5 million spent to defeat the measure. The issue even sparked an unusual degree of ecumenical cooperation, with Cardinal Maida of the Archdiocese of Detroit addressing congregations in two Baptist Churches in Detroit the Sunday before the election [AP, 11/2].
Merian's Friends, the group sponsoring Proposal B, tried to make this religious involvement into an issue in the campaign as its Oregon counterpart did in 1994 and 1997. Days before the election, the group declared that "this election may mark the beginning of a reign of religious oppression in the State of Michigan" if the proposal lost. "No one church, no matter how big or powerful, should make the rules for the rest of us," said the group, echoing ads used successfully to incite anti-Catholic sentiment before the Oregon votes [PRNewswire, Press release by Merian's Friends, 10/29].
That this strategy failed in Michigan is probably due to several factors. Catholics, and churchgoers generally, make up a far larger percentage of the electorate in Michigan, where they are seen as mainstream citizens rather than an embattled minority. Moreover, non-Catholic religious groups were active participants in Citizens for Compassionate Care, the coalition to defeat the proposal, as were medical, right-to-life and disability rights groups. Finally, Merian's Friends lacked the resources to disseminate its message. While it raised about $1 million for the campaign, most of this was spent obtaining signatures to place the proposal on the ballot. In the last weeks of the campaign the group could spend only about $75,000 on television and radio ads in which former governor William Milliken calls assisted suicide a "very fundamental right" [AP, 10/15].
Since the November 3 vote, Citizens for Compassionate Care has spent another $200,000 to buy air time -- to educate the public on hospice care and other alternatives to physician-assisted suicide. Kevin Kelly, managing director of the Michigan State Medical Society, says the theme of the new ad campaign is "physician-assisted living." The state of Michigan will also spend $150,000 next year to train medical professionals in care of the dying. Kelly says the defeat of Proposal B "has been a big boost for people who provide end-of-life care" [AP, 11/16].
Oregon to Begin State-Funded Suicides
The Oregon Health Plan is expected to begin subsidizing assisted suicide for indigent patients on December 1. While the Oregon Health Services Commission made the initial decision to cover "physician aid in dying" in February, a hearing was held November 23 on the final rule for implementing the new coverage. State funds will cover the diagnostic and counseling sessions required under Oregon's assisted suicide law as well as the lethal drugs themselves; the funds will be segregated from federal Medicaid funds, which are barred from subsidizing euthanasia or assisted suicide.
Religious, medical and disability rights groups testified against the coverage at the November 23 hearing. "The fact that the state of Oregon will not properly fund our personal attendant services, yet will pay for us to die, amounts to nothing less than cultural genocide," said Ric Burger, president of the Oregon chapter of Americans Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT). Physicians for Compassionate Care observed that "bureaucratic barriers have already been placed in the way of providing adequate funding for state-of-the-art antidepressant medication and even pain medicines, while full funding of assisted suicide for this same vulnerable population is being promoted." The Oregon Catholic Conference objected that such a radical change in coverage should not be implemented without involving the legislature. But Dr. Alan Bates, chairman of the Health Services Commission, says that laws limiting the kinds of decisions the commission can make outside a legislative session are intended to prevent decisions that cost the state a lot of money -- and assisted suicide is very inexpensive [AP and The Oregonian, 11/24/98].
Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide Cases Worldwide
- In Springfield, Massachusetts, a federal grand jury has indicted a former nurse at a veterans hospital for murdering three patients and trying to kill two others in 1995 and 1996. Kristen Gilbert, 31, allegedly used lethal doses of
epinephrine to kill patients; she has already been sentenced to 15 months in prison for making a bomb threat to the hospital while being investigated. One victim was Henry Hudon, 35, who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic and had the flu. Hudon had begged his family not to leave him on the ward because he feared patients were being killed; "we thought it was just ranting," says his sister [Washington Times, 11/25].
- In Saskatchewan, Canada, an appeals court unanimously reversed the lenient sentence given to convicted murderer Robert Latimer, and ruled that he must serve a mandatory life sentence with a chance for parole after ten years. Latimer was convicted of second-degree murder last year for killing his 12-year-old daughter Tracy, who had cerebral palsy; but the trial judge had set aside the mandatory sentence as "cruel and unusual" and commuted Latimer's sentence to one year in prison and one year's probation. The new ruling was welcomed by disability groups, who say the murder of a person with disabilities is finally being treated as no less punishable than the murder of anyone else. Latimer will appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada [Reuters, 11/23; see November 1997 Life at Risk].
- In Australia, the Australian Medical Association is urging the medical practitioners' board to launch an investigation of that country's Jack Kevorkian, Dr. Philip Nitschke. Following the recent arrest of Kevorkian on a murder charge, Nitschke revealed that he has assisted 20 suicides which he videotaped [Australian AP, 11/27]. Previously Nitschke assisted the suicides of four patients under a law allowing the practice in Australia's Northern Territory, until the law was repealed last year by the Australian parliament [see February/March 1997 Life at Risk].
- In New York, a 65-year-old woman who killed her husband in an apparent suicide pact was released on parole in October, after serving the minimum one-and-a-half year sentence for manslaughter. Jane Hearn shot her husband Jack, a retired college administrator, in April 1997 when he was depressed after a debilitating stroke; she was prevented from killing herself when her son arrived at the couple's residence [AP, 10/6].
Kevorkian's Televised Murder: A Step Too Far?
"This could never be a crime in any society which deems itself enlightened." So said Jack Kevorkian on CBS's "60 Minutes" on November 22, on a segment showing the first nationally televised death by euthanasia in the U.S.
Kevorkian offered the footage to CBS to dramatize his campaign for euthanasia for terminally and chronically ill patients. The film shows him giving a lethal injection in September to 52-year-old Thomas Youk, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). Kevorkian is shown apparently ending Mr. Youk's life by injecting Seconal to put him to sleep, followed by a powerful muscle relaxant to stop his breathing and potassium chloride to stop his heart.
Kevorkian says on the segment that he provided the footage to force the hand of Michigan prosecutors. "Either they go or I go," he says. "If I'm acquitted, they go, because they know they'll never convict me. If I'm convicted, I will starve to death in prison, so I will go."
CBS had its own motives for cooperating with Kevorkian. The segment was hyped in advance as showing the first actual footage of a euthanasia death in the U.S. (Such footage has been shown on Dutch television; but when ABC's "Primetime Live" showed portions of the Dutch documentary in 1994 it did not show the actual death.) This notoriety boosted CBS's ratings during the November "sweeps" period, when viewership is estimated to set prices for advertising time.
CBS's decision to take a sensationalistic approach to an individual's death drew widespread criticism. "Kevorkian is a serial killer of disabled people," said Diane Coleman of the disability rights group Not Dead Yet. "If he were doing this to members of any other minority group, Kevorkian would be in jail by now and would never have gotten the bully pulpit of 60 Minutes" [Press release, 11/23/98]. Describing the footage as a "snuff film," the charitable organization Americans for Better Care of the Dying said that it "looked more like a person administering the death penalty to a criminal than an example of a 'good death'" [Press release, 11/24]. Even relatives of Kevorkian's past victims who support assisted suicide said the televised death went too far [Detroit Free Press, 11/21].
The Archdiocese of Detroit and other Catholic dioceses urged CBS affiliates not to air the footage. At least half a dozen affiliates -- in Houston, San Antonio, St. Louis, New Orleans, Tulsa and Spokane -- did not air it [AP, 11/22].
The fact that Kevorkian administered the lethal dose this time, instead of having his client perform the final act, prompted doubts even from longtime friend and attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who says Kevorkian "is out there alone... in uncharted territory" [UPI, 11/20]. The film shows a homicide by injection, not a suicide. "We need active euthanasia," Kevorkian says. "There are patients who just can't do this for themselves. From now on I'm doing them all that way -- it's faster, cleaner and easier" [Reuters, 11/20].
After the broadcast Oakland County prosecutor David Gorcyca subpoenaed the unedited tape of Youk's death from "60 Minutes." On November 25 he charged Kevorkian with three felony counts: first-degree murder, assisting a suicide and delivering a controlled substance [ABC News, 11/25]. Kevorkian remains free on a $750,000 personal bond [Detroit News, 11/27].
Kevorkian's past record of evading all legal penalties ended earlier in the month. On November 4 a jury convicted him of two misdemeanor charges for interfering with police and resisting arrest while delivering the body of a victim to a Detroit-area hospital in May [see May and June/July Life at Risk]. He was sentenced to pay a $700 fine and $200 in court costs [AP, 11/4]. Since his arrest on these charges, Kevorkian has been subject to a bond forbidding him to assist suicides or break other laws; thus he may also be charged with violating the conditions of his bond for killing Mr. Youk in September [Detroit News, 11/23].
Background: Bishops' Statement on Sanctity of Human Life
On November 18, assembled in Washington, D.C., the Catholic Bishops of the U.S. approved a statement urging American Catholics, including those in public leadership positions, to make opposition to abortion and euthanasia a priority in their public life. Excerpts from "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics" follow:
5. [A]bortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others. They are committed against those who are weakest and most defenseless, those who are genuinely "the poorest of the poor." They are endorsed increasingly without the veil of euphemism, as supporters of abortion and euthanasia freely concede these are killing even as they promote them. Sadly, they are practiced in those communities which ordinarily provide a safe haven for the weak -- the family and the healing professions. Such direct attacks on human life, once crimes, are today legitimized by governments sworn to protect the weak and marginalized...
21. Bringing a respect for human dignity to practical politics can be a daunting task... Good people frequently disagree on which problems to address, which policies to adopt and how best to apply them. But for citizens and elected officials alike, the basic principle is simple: We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate that life may seem. In other words, the choice of certain ways of acting is always and radically incompatible with the love of God and the dignity of the human person created in His image. Direct abortion is never a morally tolerable option... Similarly, euthanasia and assisted suicide are never acceptable acts of mercy. They always gravely exploit the suffering and desperate, extinguishing life in the name of the "quality of life" itself...
23. Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these areas... But being 'right' in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. If we understand the human person as the "temple of the Holy Spirit" -- the living house of God -- then these latter issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house's foundation. These directly and immediately violate the human person's most fundamental right -- the right to life. Neglect of these issues is the equivalent of building our house on sand. Such attacks cannot help but lull the social conscience in ways ultimately destructive of other human rights. [Full text available on the Web site of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops: www.nccbuscc.org/prolife/gospel.shtml]