LANSING, Mich.—When Carol Poenisch received her master's degree in public health education, she visualized changing the world by stomping out unhealthy habits like smoking. Seventeen years later, the 44-year-old homemaker and mother of two is leading the effort to legalize assisted suicide in her home state of Michigan.
What fuels Poenisch's passion for legalizing assisted suicide isn't politics. Poenisch's mother, Merian Frederick, was Jack Kevorkian's 19th victim. Stricken with Lou Gehrig's Disease at the age of 71, Frederick made an appointment with Kevorkian and ended her life in 1993.
Five years later, the grassroots organization Poenisch co-founded, called Merian's Friends, has cleared its first hurdle in putting assisted suicide on the ballot this fall in Michigan. Late last month group leaders carried 96 boxes of petitions containing almost 380,000 signatures into the Michigan Bureau of Elections. Only 247,127 valid signatures are needed to put the assisted suicide measure on the ballot. If the signatures are validated, this November Michigan voters will choose whether to legalize assisted suicide.
The ballot proposal, named “The Terminally Ill Patient's Right to End Unbearable Pain and Suffering Act,” would enact a statute allowing doctors to assist in the suicide of a patient certified as “terminally ill.” The patient must make the request in writing with two witnesses, must be declared “mentally competent,” and must wait one week after making the request before the lethal prescription is written. Advocates of assisted suicide claim the proposal contains more safeguards than Oregon's assisted suicide law, but that the real goal of the proposal is to give patients control.
“My mother chose the time and place for her dying, and that should be the right of all people,” said Poenisch.
In an interview with the Register, Poenisch said the petition campaign exceeded the group's expectations.
“We got an extra 10,000 signatures at the end that we didn't even expect,” she said. “It was hard to shut down the campaign.”
The group originally ran into problems garnering signatures from its volunteer base. To meet its goal, the group hired outside firms to collect signatures in support of the proposal — paying gatherers $1.50 per signature collected.
The fact that pro-life organizations and the Catholic Church are opposing the ballot proposal saddens Poenisch, she said.
“It saddens me that they're spending money to fight this,” she said. “I want that money to go to things like helping poor people.”
Poenisch and other Merian's Friends leaders aren't shy about whom they feel are the biggest enemies of their cause. While a wide-array of organizations have publicly opposed the ballot proposal, Poenisch said Right to Life of Michigan and the Catholic Church will lead the charge against the proposal.
“I don't expect groups like Hospice to put much energy into fighting this,” she said. “It will be Right to Life and the Catholic Church, probably national right to life groups and the national Catholic Church. Maybe even the Vatican will give money to stop this, I don't know.”
Officials with Hospice of Michigan disagree with Poenisch, arguing that a variety of organizations — some that are religiously based and some that are not — plan to fight the assisted suicide proposal. Barbara Lewis, communications director of Hospice of Michigan said those directly involved in caring for patients at the end of life will be involved in fighting the proposal.
“We're talking about what we're going to do,” said Lewis. “If this passes, it will remove any impetus for improving end of life care.”
Lewis said the Merian's Friends ballot proposal is “just really bad law.” She explained that the attending physician would be required to falsify the patient's death certificate (listing not “suicide” but the terminal illness as the cause of death), prohibit the medical examiner from being involved, and create a secret oversight committee which would inhibit any investigation of a suspicious death. The proposal also does not include a residency requirement, meaning anyone could come to Michigan to commit suicide.
“There are a lot of things in there that people are just unaware of,” she said.
Another organization not associated with the Catholic Church or the pro-life movement that, actively fighting the proposal is Not Dead Yet. This group, compromised mainly of people with disabilities, has been vocal and militant in its opposition to assisted suicide, even to the point of conducting a sit-in at the national office of the Hemlock Society in Denver earlier this year.
Bob Liston, a Not Dead Yet organizer in Michigan, said members of the disabled community are mobilizing to defeat the proposal and educate society on the potential ramifications of assisted suicide.
“People are being fed this line by
Merian's Friends and the Hemlock Society that you're better off dead than disabled,” said Liston, who uses a wheelchair. “People are buying it.”
Liston said Not Dead Yet is working through the media and public forums to inject the voice of disabled citizens into Michigan's assisted suicide debate. He says the debate is not a religious or “right to life” issue — pointing out that many disabled-rights activists tend to be very liberal on other issues — but one about people's lives.
“Merian's Friends talks about ‘choice,’ but choosing between being a burden to your family and choosing to end your life is not a choice,” said Liston. “With friends like Merian's, who needs enemies?”
Sister Monica Kostielney, president of the Michigan Catholic Conference, said: “When it comes to any life issue, the Church is identified as imposing its will on the people and that's about as far from the truth as you can get.”
Sister Kostielney said the Catholic Conference has already begun copying the petitions that Merian's Friends have submitted in order to verify their authenticity. She said the Catholic Conference would wait for the state elections division to release an official number of signatures before deciding if a full-scale challenge to the validity of the signatures will be launched. Until then, she says, the Church will continue to educate Michigan citizens.
“Education is the chief component,” she said. “When people learn the difference between letting a person die and killing a person, people change their mind.”
Kostielney said she's optimistic that education will defeat the proposal. A May 31 poll released by the Detroit News shows the number of voters opposing the proposal continues to grow. While previous polls have registered support for the assisted suicide proposal at almost 60%, the Detroit News poll revealed 44% in support, 39% opposed, and nearly 20% undecided.
While it looks as if Michigan voters may have the final say on the issue, assisted suicide opponents say everyone should be concerned about what develops with the ballot proposal.
“This proposal would make Michigan the suicide capital of the world,” said Sister Kostielney.
To Not Dead Yet's Liston, it's even more personal. As a person with a disability, he feels personally threatened by the proposal.
“It's our lives we're talking about,” he said. “We're committed to doing everything we can to make sure this doesn't pass.”
Greg Chesmore writes from Bloomington, Indiana.