May 29, 2024

Has assisted suicide been scratched from the progressive agenda?

One lesson from Tuesday night is that assisted suicide is not necessarily an item on a “progressive” agenda.

this powerful TV ad against Question 2 may have swayed voters

One lesson from Tuesday night is that assisted suicide is not necessarily an item on a “progressive” agenda. While voters re-elected Barack Obama, added two Democrat senators, elected an openly-lesbian senator in Wisconsin, supported or legalised same-sex marriage in four states, and legalised recreational cannabis in Colorado and Washington, they rejected physician-assisted suicide in the playground of progressive politics, Massachusetts.

Question 2 on the ballot asked whether a doctor should be allowed to prescribe a lethal drug to end the life of a terminally ill person. If it had been approved, assisted suicide would have gained a beachhead on the East Coast and might have spread quickly throughout New England.

But voters rejected it by 51 percent to 49 percent, even though as recently as mid-September, a Suffolk University poll found that 64 percent of voters favoured legalising assisted suicide.

What turned voters around? Four factors seem to have been at work.

First, disability activists were strongly opposed to the measure. They feared that legalised assisted suicide would put pressure on them to take an early exit

“We changed the nature of the campaign,” said John Kelly, director of Second Thoughts, a disability activist group. “This is the first assisted suicide campaign in which the disability rights perspective has reached so many people.” Their vigorous arguments persuaded voters that physical incapacity or incontinence do not rob people of their dignity.

Second, opponents of assisted suicide could not be tarred as theocrats seeking to impose their values on a post-Christian electorate. The Catholic Church strongly opposed Question 2, but stayed in the background. Second Thoughts, for instance, also backed Question 3 – about whether to legalise the use of marijuana for medical purposes. It passed.

Third, the medical establishment was strongly opposed – as it is nearly everywhere. Who knows better the hazards of allowing the healing profession to end lives?

Two of the leading supporters were Marcia Angell, a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Dan Brock, a professor of medical ethics, both of Harvard Medical School. However, the official position of the Massachusetts Medical Society, the publisher of the NEJM, was strongly opposed.

Finally, in the final weeks of the campaign, prominent progressives were emphatic in their opposition. In a New York Times op-ed, Dr Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an architect of the Obama Administration’s healthcare policy, described assisted suicide as fundamentally skewed against the poor:

“Whom does legalizing assisted suicide really benefit? Well-off, well-educated people, typically suffering from cancer, who are used to controlling everything in their lives — the top 0.2 percent. And who are the people most likely to be abused if assisted suicide is legalized? The poor, poorly educated, dying patients who pose a burden to their relatives.”

E.J. Dionne, a liberal stalwart who writes for the Washington Post, asked how assisted suicide “would interact with the need to curb costs in our medical system”.

Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, a leading palliative care physician, Ira Byock, insisted that he was a card-carrying progressive, but that he detested assisted suicide. “America is failing people who are facing the end of life and those who love and care for them. Giving licensed physicians the authority to write lethal prescriptions is not a progressive thing to do.”

In Massachusetts the Kennedy family is more revered than the Windsor family is in the UK. So a message from the widow of Senator Ted Kennedy probably swayed many voters. Dismissing the slogan of “dying with dignity”, Victoria Reggie Kennedy wrote in a local newspaper: “for every complex problem, there’s a simple easy answer. And it’s wrong.”

Supporters of assisted suicide will not give up. But the experience in Massachusetts shows that political progressives are deeply divided on this issue.

Michael Cook
Creative commons
assisted suicide
politics and bioethics