Culture of Life
Coalition Rallying to Defeat Michigan Assisted-Suicide Proposal
BY Dan Digmann
September 27-October 3, 1998 Issue | Posted 9/27/98 at 1:00 PM
LANSING, Mich.—Americans are sharply divided with regard to the moral and ethical arguments against assisted suicide — especially in Michigan, where Geoffrey Fieger, an outspoken advocate of euthanasia who is best known as Dr. Jack Kevorkian's former defense lawyer, is on the ballot for governor as the Democratic Party's nominee. But a coalition called Citizens for Compassionate Care has found a compelling reason for voters on both sides of the issue to pull the plug on Proposal B: it's simply bad legislation. The statewide ballot proposition is an attempt to legalize assisted suicide in Michigan when voters go to the polls in November.
At a recent press conference at the state capitol, coalition members said the 12,000-word proposal is overly complex, poorly worded, and contains more than 40 serious flaws and hundreds of unanswered legal and medical questions. If approved by Michigan voters, the legislation would repeal the state's current law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide.
Earlier this month, Citizens for Compassionate Care launched an estimated $5 million campaign to educate state voters about Proposal B. The newly formed group, consisting of more than 20 medical, health-care, and religious organizations, including the Michigan Catholic Conference, Michigan State Medical Society, Michigan Disability Rights Coalition, and Right to Life of Michigan, has one clear goal in mind. As Kevin Kelly, managing director of the Michigan State Medical Society, put it, “The committee will be asking the citizens across the state to think very, very deeply about the ramifications of Proposal B, and ultimately we will ask the citizens of Michigan to vote ‘no’ on Proposal B.”
Gary Pokorny is president of the Grand Rapids advertising firm developing the coalition's media campaign in the weeks leading up to the vote. He said the group is asking voters “to think beyond the idea of individual rights and death with dignity and instead focus on the potential for abuse and the dangers of radically changing our approach to caring for the dying.” He said the Oregon experience — where physician-assisted suicide is legal — illustrates the dangers. Earlier in September, he noted, Oregon Medicaid restricted funding for a critical pain relief medicine, while continuing to fund physician-assisted suicide.
“Physician-assisted suicide could become the norm rather than disease treatment, research, pain management, love, hope and support,” said Pokorny. “Where is our compassion?”
The 11-page Proposal B was put on the ballot after a successful petition drive conducted by Merian's Friends, an Ann Arbor-based organization named for Merian Frederick. Diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, Frederick died with assistance from Kevorkian, the retired Michigan pathologist who has admitted to assisting the suicides of more than 100 people die since 1990.
Dr. Edward Pierce, a retired family physician and chairman of Merian's Friends, said the coalition's efforts could be very damaging to his organization, which he claimed does not have the resources to defend its proposal against what he termed a “misleading’” campaign.
Dr. Cathy Blight, a Flint pathologist and honorary co-chairwoman of Citizens for Compassionate Care, told the press conference that new organizations are joining daily and said the diversity of the coalition's as impressive as its size.
Earlier this year the Michigan Hospice Organization expressed strong opposition to the proposal, stating: “The hospice community is very concerned that the legalization of physician-assisted suicide will provide an option that will prevent people with a serious illness from seeking proper help, and from discovering the goodness of life that can be found, even while dying. … To encourage an early end to one's life by creating a law that would legalize assisted suicide is to take a giant stop backward regarding the care of the terminally ill in Michigan.”
Blight said the Michigan State Medical Society, a 14,000-member professional association affiliated with the American Medical Association, opposes Proposal B because of the measure's legal ramifications for physicians and its impediments for patients who are not seeking assisted suicide.
Michigan patients already have the right to refuse or discontinue any medical treatment, as well as the right to receive any amount of pain medication, she said.
“Regardless of … personal beliefs for or against the practice of physician-assisted suicide,” Blight said, “voters should know that (the medical society) board of directors came to the decision to oppose Proposal B based not on that ethical debate, but on the basis of the onerous and complex language of the proposal.”
She added, “Proposal B is so riddled with problems that Michigan voters should be compelled to vote ‘no.’”
Among the problems with Proposal B cited at the press conference are:
—It would lead to subtle coercion of the elderly, disabled and minorities.
—It would interfere with the private doctor-patient-family relationship.
—It would allow out-of-state relatives of Michigan citizens to commit suicide in Michigan.
—It would allow mentally ill patients to commit suicide.
—It is fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as healer.
—It would not require prior notification of loved ones.
—Privacy laws would prohibit medical examiners from performing autopsies.
—Doctors would be required to lie because they would have to list the illness and not suicide as the primary cause of death on death certificates.
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