A new front in the so-called culture wars may well be forming. All the factors are there: a vast disparity of opinions reinforced by geographic and cultural segregation, passionately-defended religious mores pitted against the social and economic motives of those who may not share them, and a swelling of political and legal initiatives that will inevitably challenge beliefs and impact thousands of lives. It has been several years since the court-ordered removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, which precipitated the largest media blitz concerning physician-assisted dying since Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s “assisted suicides” in the 1990s, and it may not be long until an emotionally complex case in Washington, Oregon, or Montana, the three states where physician-assisted aid-in-dying is currently legal, initiates a similar media frenzy.
The aid-in-dying controversy has been debated since long before Jack Kevorkian. The first significant drive to legalize it came in 1906, and there have been many unsuccessful attempts at legislation and regulation throughout the 20th Century. In 1996 Oregon was the first state to successfully legalize physician-assisted dying, through Ballot Measure 16 and the Death With Dignity Act, co-authored by Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion in Dying (subsequently Compassion & Choice). Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act proved to be both constitutionally sound and popular. In 2008, Washington state voters approved I-1000, a bill developed and fiercely advocated by Compassion & Choices, and modeled closely off the successful Oregon law. In 2009 the Montana Supreme Court legalized aid-in-dying through Baxter v. Montana, a case brought by Compassion & Choices on behalf of a man dying of lymphocytic leukemia. That makes three states in which aid-in-dying is now permitted. California may not be far behind, should the Right to Know End-of-Life Options Act, signed into law in 2009 and similarly authored by Compassion & Choices, remain popular. A groundswell appears to have risen. A backlash may soon follow.
On June 16, 2011, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved a statement expressing their firm opposition to aid-in-dying, stating “allowing doctors to prescribe patients the means to kill themselves is a corruption of the healing arts.” The church’s opinions here are significant, as Catholic hospitals account for over 12.5% of all community hospitals in the U.S. Though their position regarding this matter has long been well known, of late they have grown more vocal. In March of 2011, Pope John Paul II pronounced the removal of feeding tubes from vegetative patients immoral, the procedure that precipitated the Terri Schiavo media frenzy.
Indeed, if Compassion & Choices has acted as the standard bearer for the aid-in-dying movement, the USCCB has acted in the roll of foil, campaigning vigorously against assisted-dying initiatives. In their recent statement, the USCCB states that Catholic teaching views suicide as “a grave offense against love of self, one that also breaks the bonds of love and solidarity with family, friends, and God.” In her response, Barbara Coombs Lee writes “A bright and wide line separates the crime of assisting a suicide from the medical practice of aid in dying…we welcome – and are deeply grateful for – today’s clarity and affirmation that religious objection is the foundation of opposition to the medical practice of aid in dying.” One could be forgiven for recognizing echoes of the fall-out following Roe v. Wade, with Compassion & Choices in the place of Planned Parenthood, and organizations like the Euthanasia Prevention Program in place of the National Right to Life Council.
Perhaps it’s too early to say. This is an endlessly complex issue, and there are plenty of prominent Catholic figures who support physician-assisted dying, as well as doctors who do not, citing a potential for abuse and untoward pressure applied to terminally ill patients. The state of New York, for instance, recently passed a law, widely disliked within the medical community, requiring its physicians to discuss “end-of-life options” with their patients. Public opinion seems perhaps less conflicted than in the case of abortion: depending on the language, with a vast differential between assisted-suicide and aid-in-dying, a greater number of Americans have always supported the right to end-of-life choice (a distinction likewise sited by aid-in-dying proponents, the word “suicide” implying a depressive or mentally unsound person). Still, who’s to say how this will play out should the legalization drives continue, and the conversation grows louder. Either way, it appears that the aid-in-dying controversy is only just getting started.