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A Death of One’s Own

By Anne Hendershott

During the past decade—beginning with a PBS broadcast in 2000 entitled On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying, and culminating with the provisions for “end of life” counseling in the current health care legislation—assisted suicide and euthanasia have become so successfully defined down that even Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) volunteered to co-host a luncheon and fundraiser last year for Compassion and Choices of Northern California—the assisted suicide advocacy organization formerly known as the Hemlock Society.

Indeed, for Progressive Democrats like Feinstein and other liberal lawmakers, the movement for assisted suicide and euthanasia has become the new frontier for the freedom to choose. And, like abortion advocacy organizations, powerful pro-death advocacy organizations—some with annual budgets of more than a million dollars—have emerged with generous funding from leftist foundations like the Tides Foundation.

According to  Wesley Smith, a Senior Fellow in Human Rights and Bioethics at the Discovery Institute and author of Culture of Death,  “Compassion and Choices clearly wants to become the Planned Parenthood of assisted suicide, no doubt hoping one day to receive public funds and medical referrals for end-of-life counseling, and to facilitate assisted suicide.”

Key to the movement’s success has been the advocates’ ability to change the image from the creepy “death-doctor” Jack Kevorkian, to the soft-spoken star of Moyers’ 2000 PBS special—a benevolent, Birkenstock-wearing Oregon physician who softly speaks the language of choice as she allays our fears of death while lauding her state’s enlightened right to die law.

The Moyers’ team reassures viewers that we too can avoid the loss of control that death might bring if only we will make the “hard choices” about the end of our lives.  The program presents heartbreaking vignettes of people struggling with terminal illnesses, chief among them a once-strong veterinarian now debilitated with the degenerative Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).  Viewers learn that the man is planning to take his own life in order to avoid the slow, terrifying death by suffocation that he faces.  But, since he lives in Louisiana, a state without an assisted suicide option, he laments that he will have to kill himself sooner and without help.  In labored speech, the struggling man laments: “If I lived in Oregon I could live longer, knowing that my doctor would help me die.”

The message is clear: It just isn’t fair that some of us can have a death of our own while others are forced to die according to society’s backward rules.  Indeed, most of those interviewed for Moyers’ program seem to agree that it is cruel to refuse to help this kindly veterinarian die after he has “spent a lifetime of kindness to animals by putting them out of their suffering when it was needed.”

For the past decade—since the Moyers’ special—the campaign to sell the softer image of assisted suicide and euthanasia has continued.  While Kevorkian had become a stigmatized figure—an unattractive, rather scary representative of the movement, the new generation of sympathetic choice advocates, like Oregon’s angel of death portrayed on PBS, offer a new, beautiful face of suicide.  This beneficent physician softly advises her patients that “the choice is theirs” as she prepares the lethal cocktail for them to drink.”

Today, an ever-increasing number of advocacy groups with names like “Compassionate Friends” or “Compassion in Dying” provide volunteers to help those who seek assistance in suicide.  Organizations that once called themselves euthanasia societies have now renamed themselves using soothing words like compassion and dignity along with the language of freedom and rights, such as “choice.”  Thus the Euthanasia Society of American was transformed into the Society for the Right to Die and later into Choice in Dying.  Assisted suicide has been renamed “aid in dying.”

Several of these newly re-named groups offer handbooks and recipes for a quick and painless death.  One suicide advocacy group even sells plastic bags with “flannelette lining and Velcro fasteners at the neck for added comfort” for those who choose suffocation as their form of suicide. The Hemlock Society (now Compassion and Choice)  has a “Caring Friends Program” which provides volunteer mentors to work with dying members who want someone to provide support, comfort, and information as they die.

And, the advertising has increased.  Last month a 15 by 49-foot billboard appeared on a busy thoroughfare in Hillside, New Jersey which read “My Life, My Death, My Choice,”  The billboard, along with one in San Francisco and another one planned for Florida, is part of the Final Exit Network’s advertising campaign.  According to a news story in the New Jersey Star Ledger, the locations were chosen for their reputations as being socially progressive, and in Florida’s case, for its elderly population.

While most faithful Catholics focused on preventing federal funding for abortion under the new federal healthcare plan, the advocates for assisted suicide were working quietly with sympathetic legislators in the backrooms of Congress.  Compassion and Choices claims to have played a prominent role in creating the “end-of-life” section of the reform.  In an article in  National Review, Wesley Smith points out that on the Compassion and Choices website, the organization claims that it has “worked tirelessly with supportive members of congress to include in proposed reform legislation a provision requiring Medicare to cover patient consultation with their doctors about end-of-life choice.”

In many ways, the progress in the assisted suicide movement has paralleled the history of progress in the pro-abortion movement.  First, abortion advocates were successful in changing the image of abortion through sympathetic movies and television programs.  Then, abortion advocates found supportive legislators in progressive, heavily Democratic states and were successful in passing pro-abortion legislation in places like New York long before Roe v Wade was even considered.  Now, there are three states which have legalized assisted suicide—Oregon and Washington by voter referendum, and Montana by a court ruling.  Other states like Hawaii and Vermont have had long legislative battles with the momentum going to the pro-choice side.

Like abortion legislation,  Democratic voters and legislators are much more likely to favor liberal laws supporting assisted suicide.  It is difficult to predict how this story will end.  But, if we have learned anything from the history of abortion legislation, it is that once a few liberal states enact these laws, it is just a matter of time before the Supreme Court makes this choice a “right” for all of us.

Anne Hendershott is head of the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics Program at The King’s College in Manhattan.

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