Election Day yielded two state ballot-measure wins in defense of the sanctity of life, while two other state initiatives were defeated.
After a contentious campaign battle, Massachusetts’ voters narrowly rejected an attempt to legalize physician-assisted suicide. In Montana, voters accepted a parental-notification restriction on abortion. Meanwhile, an attempt to eliminated state funding for abortion in Florida was rejected. California voters rejected a measure to end the death penalty in favor of life in prison.
Bishops, priests and lay Catholic leaders were actively involved in the four campaigns, hoping to educate voters about the dignity of the human person.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston welcomed the outcome of Question 2, the state’s physician-assisted suicide initiative, “Death With Dignity.”
“It is my hope and prayer that the defeat of Question 2 will help all people to understand that, for our brothers and sisters confronted with terminal illness, we can do better than offering them the means to end their lives,” said the cardinal in a statement responding to the vote.
Question 2 attempted to legalize physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients who had received a six-month prognosis. Early on Nov. 7, backers of the measure conceded the race, though votes were still being counted in an especially close contest.
Despite the messaging difficulties that life advocates had to overcome, 51% of state voters opposed the ballot initiative and 49% supported it, with 96% of the precincts in Massachusetts reporting.
Cardinal O’Malley helped to drive the creation of a broad coalition of Massachusetts religious leaders and health-care organizations opposed to the measure, shifting poll numbers that initially favored the initiative in this liberal state.
“Instead of taking care of the terminally ill, we are helping them in a moment when they are most vulnerable to commit suicide. This strikes at the heart of the kind of compassion and mercy that the Church is supposed to be about. The sacredness of human life is cheapened by this kind of behavior,” Cardinal O’Malley stated in an interview with the Register as the campaign heated up.
The initiative was entitled “Death With Dignity,” and Anne Fox, the Massachusetts Citizens for Life president, said that proponents of physician-assisted suicide sought “to make it sound so appealing.”
She added, “Whenever we can control the debate, we use ‘doctor-prescribed suicide’ [in place of ‘Death With Dignity’]. … People get a whole different picture.”
She said that Question 2 proposed a dying process that was “not the least bit dignified.” Patients would receive a prescription from a doctor and not be subject to a psychological evaluation. They would not be required to notify family members. The patient would then have to consume the contents of approximately 100 pills — with no supervision required.
Split Decision on Abortion
Florida and Montana voted on abortion restrictions. Both state constitutions include a broadly interpreted right to privacy, enshrining abortion as a right.
Moe Wosepka, executive director of the Montana Catholic Conference, explained that because of the state constitution, even small restrictions to abortion are considered unlawful.
However, Montana’s Legislative Referendum 120, a parental-notification measure, passed Nov. 6 by a large majority. The referendum includes recourse to a judicial bypass, which Wosepka said should render it constitutional.
Supporters of the amendment campaigned, in part, by asking why teenage girls cannot receive an aspirin at school, get a tattoo or go on a field trip without parental permission, yet are able to procure a life-altering surgical procedure without notifying parents.
Wosepka noted that the lack of parental oversight could result in allowing sexual abuse of underage girls to continue.
“We need to protect not only the baby, but we also need to protect our underage daughters,” said Wosepka. “Why are we sacrificing underage girls to protect abortion?”
Regarding Montana’s new incremental measure to restrict abortion, Wosepka said it’s important to try to save one life “on the way to total banning of abortion sometime in the future, instead of not saving any lives until we get to that point.”
In Florida, an incremental effort to restrict abortion was defeated by a 55%-45% margin.
Deborah Stafford Shearer, director of the Office of Advocacy and Justice for the Diocese of Orlando, said Florida’s Amendment 6 was “really an attempt to rectify an amendment that was passed in 1980 about a right to privacy regarding medical records. When that amendment was passed, it more or less codified a right for abortion in our state.”
If passed, Amendment 6 would have restricted taxpayer funding of abortion or health-care coverage that included abortions. Shearer noted before the election that the amendment was meant to set the stage for possible future pro-life legislation.
Death Penalty Defeat
In California, Proposition 34 aimed to repeal the death penalty in the state, replacing it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. The measure was rejected by a 54%-47% margin.
Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, said the proposed measure offered the bishops an opportunity to discuss the dignity of the human person.
However, the conference’s efforts to engage voters on the issue met with considerable resistance, he said, primarily because of their deep sympathy for crime victims and their families.
When dealing with tragic circumstances, Dolejsi noted, people struggled to see the dignity of all human persons. Yet, “no matter how flawed, no matter how gifted … the person still reflects the image and likeness of God,” he said.
The Catechism teaches: “Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against an unjust aggressor” (2267).
In each of the state campaigns, supporters of pro-life initiatives faced various obstacles to their educational outreach efforts.
Dolejsi and Fox mentioned funding as a challenge. For the Massachusetts ballot issue, television ads were a necessary but expensive requirement.
Wosepka noted that social issues dealing with the dignity of the human person “are all much too complicated for a sound bite,” and that makes it tough to gain traction through mainstream media.
Despite such hurdles, some of the ballot initiatives enjoyed surprising endorsements from the media. The Sacramento Bee endorsed the repeal of the death penalty in California, and The Boston Globe came out against Question 2, the assisted-suicide measure on the Massachusetts ballot.
Catholic leaders embraced the election as a unique opportunity to raise awareness about the dignity of the human person.
In Montana, Wosepka used a variety of public forums to explain the issues in order to engage voters.
“Sometimes when you’re dealing with complicated issues you have to have something that acts as the bridge,” he said. “This is the bridge for us. You have to have something that is much more understandable, so that people can see why we have to address a much more complicated and broader issue.”
Fox said the Massachusetts campaign attracted voters concerned about physician-assisted suicide who had no previous history with the pro-life movement, and she believed their engagement on one life issue could lead them to reconsider other issues.
“If you make them think about one thing, it makes them think about the dignity of the human person,” Fox said. It “carries over.”
Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., said one consequence of the aggressive secularization of our culture is that dignity is no longer seen as given by the Creator or inherent to all human persons.
“Dignity becomes dependent on what we do or can do, rather than who we are,” he said.
“Our frenetic, practical, emotivist culture doesn’t make a wide conversation on human dignity easy,” said Father Landry. “This is a conversation that needs to be led not by university professors, but by commonsensical citizens at work, parents over the dinner table, teachers in schools and pastors in very down-to-earth ways in their houses of worship.”
Said Father Landry, “Otherwise, we’re addressing symptoms rather than root causes, and the violations of human dignity … will continue and expand.”
Emily Macke writes from Washington, D.C.