WESLEY J. SMITH
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.
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.
Wesley J. Smith
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."
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
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.
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
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Wesley J. Smith. "Dying Cause." National Review Online
(May 20, 2003).
This article is reprinted with permission from National Review.
To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount
Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the
and an attorney and consultant for the
International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. He is
an international lecturer and public speaker, appearing frequently at
political, university, medical, legal, bioethics, and community
gatherings across the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and
Australia. Wesley J. Smith is the author or co/author of 9 books.
Most recently his revised and updated
Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope From Assisted Suicide to Legalized
Culture of Death: The Assault of Medical Ethics in America, and
Power Over Pain.
Copyright © 2003