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Mass. Rejects Physician-Assisted Suicide

Massachusetts voters narrowly (51%-49%) rejected a referendum question that would have legalized physician-assisted suicide. Opponents of Question 2 raised more money ($2.6 million v. $700,000), built a broader coalition and made persuasive arguments against physician-assisted suicide in general and (perhaps more importantly) this bill in particular:"Voters said they formed their opinions about the controversial ballot initiative after careful consideration, informed by personal experiences with family members and by concerns about the safeguards written into the law.North End resident Paul Santoro, 42, cast a vote against the initiative.Im actually in favor of assisted suicide, but not how this is written, Santoro said, citing concerns about the proposals lack of required psychiatric evaluations and family notification and the lack of tracking for any leftover pills.Santoro, who works in sales, said he has five children and worries about young people getting access to dangerous, untracked medications."

Santoro's views reflect the carefully considered strategy used by Committee Against Physician-Assisted Suicide to provide citizens with arguments that relied more on persuasion than exhortation, more on a careful reading of the proposed law than on rigid moral precepts.While Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston and his brother bishops around the Commonwealth were active and vocal participants in the public debate about Question 2, and clearly articulated the Church's teachings on the issue, they avoided becoming the primary spokespersons for the "No on 2" campaign. In fact, they often used their voices to call attention to others who opposed Question 2: the disabled, doctors and other healthcare workers, hospice volunteers.My purely subjective and woefully limited sense is that this approach was both good politics and good episcopal leadership. Many Catholics I know---regardless of how they voted on the issue---appreciated Cardinal O'Malley's humble and respectful way of entering the public arena on this issue.I'd be interested to hear the perspectives not only of Massachusetts residents, but also of folks from around the country. Were there issues or races on the ballot in which your bishop intervened? How did he do it and what was the reaction? Are there, in your view, any lessons that apply more broadly?

About the Author

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 



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Luke - this is great news and astute analysis. I also like the model of episcopal leadership you highlight here.

Was the medical community opposed to the referendum? It seems a terrible position to put doctors in.

The Mass. Medical Society opposed Question 2. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, was a prominent supporter of Question 2.

If the local bishop was talking, Luke, he was drowned out by the traffic noise.Legalized suicide's just around everyone's corner. It'll pass next time. It's an easy answer to a thorny question and, thus, a no-brainer. All thorny questions should have such easy answers. They make life so much less complicated and so much more fun.

I have an unsigned living will. It was drawn up just as the U.S. bishops were incorporating new insights from a comment by Pope John Paul II into their teaching on end-of-life issues. Their revised explanation on the decision to insert or withdraw feeding tubes is much more complicated than the old explanation. Great was the back-and-forth between theologians and a pair of bishops in America magazine. Multifold was the parsing of terms that mean something different to the parsers than the terms do in civil society. So the living will awaits a chance to discuss it with a theologian. Before the great flurry over JP II, I thought I understood the Church's position. Now I am pretty sure that no one does.I bring up this personal history because it gives an insight into the kind of material we have to use against the easy answer that Mr. Smith predicts will be our future.

Cardinal O'Malley's approach seems the wise one to me. As an Oregonian, Ive seen how badly the other approach can fail. In Oregon, the archdiocese led the opposition to physician-assisted suicide because no one else would, or so it was alleged, and in a state with a history of anti-Catholic resentment, that pretty much guaranteed the outcome: The proposition passed 51% - 49%, even though a number of important organizations and people voiced their opposition, from the AMA to President Clinton.When opponents got the issue on the ballot a second time, the Church led the way yet again, assisted this time by Mormons, which only made matters worse. Radio ads warned Oregonians not to be "pushed around by the Catholic Church and other out-of-state forces." That bill lost by a 3 to 1 margin, thus institutionalizing physician-assisted suicide in Oregon once and for all.:-(Of course, while a wiser strategy in Massachusetts won this skirmish by limiting arguments to a narrower focus, this was just one battle. The opposition will likely rewrite and refocus next time. What then? I wonder.

Cardinal O"Malley's post is indeed a fine one. I note that he had asked for input from his flock, and gotten more than 100 responses. The ten he presented are all worth considering whether by both Catholics and non-Catholics.Now *there's* evangelization.

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