WASHINGTON — While the election of Barack Obama dominated political news Nov. 4, several ballot initiatives dealing with life issues stayed under the media’s radar.
Three ballot initiatives that would have restricted abortion failed — personhood in Colorado, an abortion ban in South Dakota and parental notification in California. Washington state passed a measure that permits assisted suicide. Michigan expanded embryonic stem-cell research.
In the state of Washington, Initiative 1000 allows “mentally competent, terminally ill adults” the legal choice to request and self-administer a lethal overdose of medication. The measure passed 58% to 42%.
Rita Marker, author of Deadly Compassion, a book that analyzes the euthanasia debate, and executive director of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, is not surprised by the outcome. She said that Compassionate Choices, a group formerly known as The Hemlock Society, along with Death With Dignity, an Oregon-based euthanasia advocacy group, outmaneuvered and outplanned their opponents.
“Two years ago, the assisted suicide people recognized that they were losing everywhere, so they developed a strategy called ‘Oregon plus-one,’” she said. “They chose Washington to be the first of their plus-ones so that they could add one more state to their column. They poured millions of dollars into it, and even before they started their campaign, they raised millions and spent hundreds of thousands. They were extremely well organized and well funded, too.”
She said a disorganized response from the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide led some to speculate that the passage of I-1000 was inevitable.
“It definitely was not inevitable,” she said. “They produced a couple of magnificent TV commercials with Martin Sheen, but they came out too late.”
Likewise, Marker insists that the spread of permissive assisted suicide laws to other states is not inevitable if pro-life forces organize and work cooperatively: “There are plans to organize and meet this in a more comprehensive way than what happened in Washington, but that’s all I can tell you for now. But assisted suicide is not inevitable.”
The law will take effect March 4. Dr. Ken Stevens, professor emeritus of radiation oncology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Ore., said the problems with the law include the fact that patients don’t receive a psychiatric evaluation when necessary, doctors aren’t accountable enough and there’s less incentive to take care of those who are dying.
The coalition that fought the initiative, in a statement after the election, said it plans to keep fighting. “The Coalition Against Assisted Suicide will continue to explore ongoing legal and medical, social and legislative opposition to I-1000,” the statement said. “But perhaps the most essential and most necessary work will come from each of us in every community across Washington, choosing to say ‘Yes’ to those who are seriously or terminally ill and to their caregiviers and loved ones.”
Perhaps the most ambitious initiative in the nation was South Dakota’s Initiated Measure 11, which would have banned all abortions in the state, except in cases of rape, incest or to protect a woman’s health. The measure was defeated 55.2% to 44.8%. A similar ban failed in 2006.
Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, said there are many reasons for its failure. “It’s interesting that they lost by more votes this time than they did two years ago, yet they had a weaker proposal on the ballot,” she noted. “It was fraught with exceptions. I have a feeling that they sold their principles and wound up confusing even more voters than were initially confused in 2006.”
If Brown sounds unfazed by the measure’s defeat, that’s because she is. She says the real strategy of such a ban would be to force an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court that would hopefully reverse Roe v. Wade. “I hope the people of South Dakota go back and keep on pushing and pushing and pushing until they win, because they can win.”
In California, a more modest proposal, Proposition 4 or “Sarah’s Law,” a measure that would have required the notification of an adult family member for minors seeking abortions, narrowly failed, winning 47.7% of the vote. This was the third attempt led by vintner Don Sebastiani and Catholic publisher James Holman to introduce restrictions on minors getting abortions. The loss is more surprising because it had been winning in pre-election polls and had been endorsed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and liberal radio host Bill Handel.
Judie Brown believes the initiative was defeated because of the way it was written. “I live in California part of the year, and one of my neighbors said that ‘the language on that initiative was so confusing to me that I didn’t know which way to vote, so I didn’t vote on it,’” she recalled. “I think that’s the problem we have in California. And we were outspent.”
In Michigan, voters agreed by a 53% to 47% margin to expand embryonic stem-cell research and “prohibit state and local laws that prevent, restrict or discourage stem-cell research, future therapies and cures.”
Paul Long, vice president for public policy of the Michigan Catholic Conference, said the vote amounted to “the creation of a new industry structured around the unregulated destruction of human life.”
“Enshrining in the state constitution a measure that prohibits the legislature from enacting any oversight or accountability measures related to the destruction of human embryos has unsettling consequences for the future,” he added, pledging continued Catholic support for “the promotion of ethical and proven stem-cell research that today is benefiting those who are ill and suffering.”
The most striking defeat was in Colorado. The Colorado Equal Rights Amendment would have amended the state constitution to define any human being as a person from the moment of fertilization and recognize human fertilized eggs as persons with full civil rights.
The initiative, winning only 26.7% of the vote, had very little financial support. Brown said she is proud of its sponsors, Colorado for Equal Rights, because they overcame long odds and weak funding by winning that much of the vote.
“It was projected that they’d be lucky to get even 10% of the vote,” she said. “This will be on the ballot again. They will hopefully be able to raise the sufficient funding to put their ads on television statewide next time. I have no doubt that if they go back and try this again, they will succeed.”
Brown called Kristi Burton, the 20-year-old leader of Colorado for Equal Rights, “one of the best educators we’ve got in the pro-life movement. She is self-confident, articulate, bubbly, and this has not defeated her or the people who worked so hard in Colorado. They are already strategically planning how they will do this again.”
Even if these measures had won, there is widespread concern that the Freedom of Choice Act, which President-elect Obama has promised to sign as his first act in office, would negate them, as it would for virtually every law restricting abortion on the books. Yet Brown is in no way discouraged; she speaks of the future with an optimism that is downright defiant.
“In a way, Obama’s promise is a great opportunity for the personhood movement for pro-lifers, because that will be the only avenue open to us if he does that,” she said. “We are not working for Obama. We are not working for Republicans or Democrats. We’re working for God and defending his children, and we are not in despair. We are joyful and hopeful and continue striving for our goal, which is personhood. There is no reason to despair.”
Robert Kumpel is based
in Valdosta, Georgia.