Massachusetts voters have held the culture of death at bay for at least a little while longer in the USA, depriving backers of assisted suicide with an Eastern Front from which to spread the poison. It’s a good result that I don’t think could be duplicated in Europe. Much can be learned:
1. Opposition to assisted suicide is diverse: Proponents usually push the false idea that opponents are primarily religiously oriented–particularly Catholic. And indeed, the Catholic Church is one important element of the coalition that is (still) preventing assisted suicide from spreading outside the Pacific Northwest. But that coalition also consists of:
Disability rights activists who see themselves and the elderly–rightly–as the targets of the movement;
Medical professional organizations are overwhelmingly opposed to legalizing assisted suicide.
Egalitarian liberals, such as Robert P. Jones, believe that assisted suicide threatens equality.
Pro-lifers offer a solid foundation of opposition from which to build a winning coalition.
Advocates for the poor who understand that assisted suicide could easily become a form of medical cost containment;
Put it all together, and opponents to assisted suicide look like America, whereas leading proponents look more like the 1%.
2. People are not marching in the streets demanding legalized assisted suicide: Legalizing assisted suicide is not high on the people’s “to do list.” Indeed, I believe that if you asked 1000 people at large to list the top twenty issues about which they wanted government action, none would list legalizing assisted suicide. In truth, the agenda is the obsession of a very small, but well financed, group–most notably Compassion and Choices, that seeks to become the Planned Parenthood of death. To be fair, most people are not emotionally opposed either. Primarily, they don’t want to think about it.
3. Polls showing strong support are misleading: I have noticed a continuing pattern: The default setting for large majorities is to support assisted suicide as a general concept, particularly as most poll questions are usually worded something along the line of a false premise, e.g., “only for the terminally ill for whom nothing else can be done to alleviate suffering, with strong protective guidelines.” But when people are actually forced to ponder a real proposal, support for legalization falls like a crowbar thrown from a bridge. Sometimes, not sufficiently to be defeated, but last night support collapsed just enough in MA to allow victory for Hippocratic values.
4. Massachusetts is a Catholic State: MA is a very liberal state, but it also retains a strong Catholic identity. The vigorous opposition to Question 2 by Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley made enough of a difference to hold the line.
5. The Kennedy Name: Victoria Kennedy, Ted’s widow, wrote a powerful op/ed against Question 2, lending the late senator’s aura to the no effort and providing ”liberal” cover to opposing assisted suicide. In other words, left leaning types, who support the abortion license and abhor conservative moralism–but who still harbored doubts about assisted suicide–were given cover to vote no and not be considered theocrats by their friends.
Bottom line: Assisted suicide finds tough slogging because there remains sufficient traditional morality in the country–and the usual liberal coalition is fractured on this question–allowing those who bat from the left side of the plate to oppose a specific proposal, while still supporting the concept. So long as that status quo remains, assisted suicide’s march will be long and slow.
Look for the movement to push harder in courts now that they have lost an important election. But that’s a post for another day.