HARTFORD, Conn. — In late March, as the Connecticut Legislature took up the question of legalizing physician-assisted suicide, state lawmakers heard testimony from an unlikely source: a Catholic seminarian who had once served in the Navy and now faces inoperable brain cancer.
Patients with terminal conditions “feel, as I have often felt, that they are a burden on their families and on society, so an earlier death becomes a temptation,” said the Raleigh, N.C., seminarian, Philip Johnson, during his March 18 testimony, which opposed laws that can deepen such patients’ sense of worthlessness.
“In my experience ministering to the sick, I have noticed that once they are surrounded by those who love them and have adequate pain management, they stop wanting to die. Suffering is certainly difficult, but with true love and true medical care, patients want to live.”
The lawmakers greeted Johnson’s searing testimony with stunned silence, and some wiped their eyes as they reflected on his words.
But the seminarian’s call for compassion expressed through accompaniment, not assisted suicide, won’t be the only message the lawmakers in Connecticut and other states will hear as advocates launch an intense battle to overcome public resistance to physician-assisted suicide.
“Parkinson’s stripped my father of a life with dignity,” said Connecticut state Rep. Kelly Luxenberg, D-Manchester, in a March 18 statement that presented assisted suicide as a welcome solution for some patients.
“Wouldn’t it have been great if, in death, his dignity could have been regained?”
From Connecticut to California, similar testimony has been a highlight of the national debate on assisted suicide. Only four states — Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana — now permit the practice in some form, but activists hope they can push that number to 15 in the next couple of years.
Further, while the mainstream media often presents a sympathetic look at those who question why they must suffer through the pain and debilitation of terminal cancer and other illnesses, shifting norms make it increasingly difficult to mount an argument against euthanasia based on moral absolutes that affirm the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.
Instead, opponents of the practice seek to change minds and hearts by offering individual stories of courage and fortitude amid pain and suffering.
“The challenge is that people often do not think in principled ways. They will use the language of morality, but it doesn’t have the same content or any recognizable content,” said Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who has urged local Catholics to register their concerns as Maryland lawmakers conduct hearings on so-called death-with-dignity legislation.
“To ‘win’ a hearing, there has to be compelling stories of people who have tremendous challenges but who want to live their lives or people who have been diagnosed with only a few months to live but go on to have long, productive lives,” Archbishop Lori told the Register.
“Once you have won a hearing, then you can drill down into the imperfections in these bills, which are many. In Maryland, for example, there would have been very little oversight of the whole process,” he added, echoing concerns raised by the state coalition Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide.
“Then you can engage the ultimate question: the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.”
In March, Maryland lawmakers were riveted by the testimony of O.J. Brigance, a former Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker who opposes any change in state laws that now bar assisted suicide.
Brigance spoke of his own struggles after he was diagnosed with ALS and the unexpected fruits of his decision to make the most of his shortened life and start a foundation to help ALS patients in need.
“Since being diagnosed, I have done a greater good for society in eight years than in my previous 37 years on earth,” said Brigance, who testified using a machine that acted as his voice.
It is too soon to say whether the voices of Brigance and Johnson will give pause to lawmakers who are under pressure to approve assisted-suicide bills.
This year is key for the assisted-suicide movement because it has a new standard-bearer, whose story has sparked a wave of interest in the issue from blue states like Connecticut, New York and Maryland to red states like Oklahoma and Kansas.
The new face of the movement is Brittany Maynard, a young Californian with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon in a successful bid to take advantage of the state law that permits physicians to provide lethal drugs to patients with terminal conditions.
Maynard took her own life last November. Compassion and Choices, the leading national organization that spearheads the legalization of assisted suicide, continues to circulate YouTube videos of Maynard and her family urging state legislatures to legalize assisted suicide.
In March, during an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, Maynard’s husband described his wife’s decision to take the lethal dose and then fall asleep as “peaceful.”
Maynard has offered an appealing makeover for a movement that has struggled to get beyond the dark legacy of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a pathologist who advocated for physician-assisted suicide and was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of one patient, though he reportedly helped an estimated 130 patients end their lives. Dubbed “Dr. Death,” he died in 2011.
New York’s ‘Inspiration’
Now, opponents of assisted suicide worry that Maynard’s story could be a game changer for so-called death-with-dignity bills. In the New York Legislature, sponsors of the New York End-of-Life Options Act cited Maynard as the inspiration for their bill.
“The option to end one’s suffering when facing the final stages of a terminal illness should be a basic human right and not dependent upon one’s zip code,” said New York state Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island/Brooklyn, the bill’s primary sponsor, in a statement.
Meanwhile, three terminally ill patients have also filed a lawsuit demanding that laws barring physician-assisted suicide be overturned.
The New York Catholic Conference has established a website providing resources on the issue that can be used by opponents of the practice in other states. While Church-affiliated coalitions that oppose the practice are more likely to stress the way such laws could threaten the well-being of the elderly and disabled, the New York website also outlines the ethical principles that undergird Catholic doctrine governing end-of-life issues.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has pointed to the practical dangers posed by assisted suicide as well as the larger moral issues at stake.
“If people want to talk about death with dignity, let’s talk about fortifying a magnificent service like hospice,” Cardinal Dolan told the New York Daily News.
In a reference to Pope St. John Paul II’s landmark document Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Cardinal Dolan suggested that death-with-dignity laws will inevitably cheapen human life and “make one’s worth and dignity synonymous with one’s ability to produce, achieve and be useful.”
California Staging Ground
On the Pacific Coast, Brittany Maynard’s home state will be another staging ground for a fight to secure the right to assisted suicide. And the California Catholic Conference is part of a political coalition that includes disability-rights groups, physician and nursing groups and pro-life organizations.
Ned Dolejsi, the state director of the California Catholic Conference, acknowledged that Maynard’s story has helped to shape the present debate, and he noted that his coalition’s messaging must not only engage political liberals, who have expressed sympathy for Maynard’s plight, but also libertarians, who advocate for the rights of individuals to control their destinies.
“It is a challenge to help those who are passionate about autonomy and personal choice to recognize that there are limits to that choice and that others could be abused,” Dolejsi told the Register.
California fits the political profile of blue states like Washington, Oregon and Vermont, where physician-assisted suicide is already legal, and some opponents of the practice fear that it could become a litmus test for Democratic lawmakers seeking support from the party’s liberal base.
But advocates of the practice have also touted efforts to make red states like Kansas and Oklahoma the next battlegrounds for passing an assisted-suicide bill.
At present, Michael Schuttloffel, the executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, has no evidence that proposed legislation on this issue has sparked significant support from state legislators.
“There has been a bill introduced this year, but I don’t think most people who work in the legislature would even know about it,” Schuttloffel told the Register.
“Kansas is a pro-life state, and we have a pro-life governor, who would veto the legislation.”
That said, he has followed the chatter about Brittany Maynard on social media and is well aware of the growing power of the “death with dignity” movement.
“The national right-to-life groups have been trying to link the beginning of life with end-of-life issues, and that will take on greater importance in coming years,” said Schuttloffel.
“We will be ready for it when it comes, believe me.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.