A Close Call for Life in Massachusetts

NEWS ANALYSIS: The come-from-behind victory against one blue state’s assisted-suicide ballot measure provides lessons about how to mobilize successfully on this life issue and on others.

Some members of a street team gather after a "No on Question 2" outreach in Boston.
Some members of a street team gather after a "No on Question 2" outreach in Boston. (photo: Justin Bell)

WALTHAM, Mass. — It took a Bay State village with a kitchen sink full of methods, but the effort to legalize assisted suicide in Massachusetts was voted down. And the victory shined a bright light through a largely bleak national election with respect to life, marriage and religious-liberty issues.

An eclectic coalition — including medical professionals, disability advocates, Catholic bishops and their officials, other religious leaders, lay Catholics, editorial writers, strategic communications and polling firms, pro-lifers, sign holders, street messengers and very generous donors — joined forces to defeat Ballot Question 2, the state’s so-called “Death With Dignity Act.”

And, of course, prayer was an integral component of the pro-life effort.

A successful initiative would have resulted in Massachusetts becoming the third American state to allow terminally ill patients to take their own lives through physician-prescribed, self-administered lethal drugs. Given the population of Massachusetts, and the national prestige of its academic complex and its medical professionals, a vote there in favor of legalized suicide likely would have carried considerably more weight nationally than when Oregon and Washington earlier legalized the deadly practice.  

Considering that a Boston Globe-sponsored poll conducted in late September found passage of the measure leading opposition by a huge 67%- 20% margin, the subsequent Election Day shift was a remarkable outcome. The official tally was 1,516,584 against (51%) and 1,453,742 for (49%) — a difference of 62,842 votes.


The Cardinal’s Leadership

During the 2011 annual “Red Mass” for members of the legal community, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, used his homily as an initial platform to publicly speak out against the pro-suicide measure. At the time, its proponents were collecting the signatures required to place it on the ballot.

“We hope that the citizens of the commonwealth will not be seduced by the language ‘dignity, mercy, compassion,’ which is used to disguise the sheer brutality of helping someone to kill themselves,” Cardinal O’Malley said.

All four Massachusetts dioceses joined in educational efforts against the measure in a coalition called the Committee Against Physician-Assisted Suicide (CAPAS) that included other groups.

After Question 2 was placed onto the ballot, the educational arm of the Boston Archdiocese kicked into gear, supported by an in-house media team that produced a dedicated website, Suicide Is Always a Tragedy, and more than 1.5 million printed materials, including business cards, prayer cards, magnets and door hangers.

The educational campaign focused on why the measure was a bad proposal for society, not just Catholics.

The cardinal also delivered a pair of video homilies that were shown in archdiocesan parishes. The first one was given in February, while the second one was aired strategically on the weekend of Oct. 27-28.

Cardinal O’Malley’s October message of advocacy against Question 2 was cast in the context of that Sunday’s Gospel reading, which was about Jesus’ encounter with the blind beggar Bartimaeus. He also referenced Archbishop Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King and the giving of their lives “to make their countries better places where human dignity was respected.”

Along with calling on Catholics to vote against the measure, the cardinal suggested they use Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus to spread the message and try to distribute 10 of the anti-Question 2 business cards to family, friends and neighbors.

“It all hinges on our ability to get the message out,” Cardinal O’Malley stressed. “We are all called to work for a more just society, where the weak and the vulnerable are nourished and protected. Our faith demands that we not be guilty bystanders.”

“Let us beg the Lord to cure all of our societal blindness and help us to follow Jesus with faith and the gratitude of Bartimaeus. Following Jesus is never easy, but it always leads to deeper joy and love; just ask the beggar,” he concluded.


Hard Pills to Swallow

When Stephen Lambordo would give talks to various groups across the state, he would bring with him a vial of about 80-100 pills, representing a common prescription of the lethal dosage.

Lombardo, 21, took time off from his studies at Ave Maria University to be the field director for the campaign for Massachusetts Citizens for Life (MCFL), the major pro-life organization in the state. MCFL was a major player in another coalition against Question 2 called the Massachusetts Alliance Against Doctor-Prescribed Suicide, which built the website No on Question 2.

The big vial of suicide pills became a powerful symbol in the campaign against Question 2, a visual aid to cut through the euphemisms of compassion and dignity.

Rasky Baerlin Strategic Communications produced a commercial for the Committee Against Physician-Assisted Suicide, with a pharmacist explaining about the drug Seconal, “which people will use to commit suicide at home.”

“No doctors, no hospitals, just a hundred of these,” said the pharmacist as he dumped the orange pills on a tray. “And they call that ‘death with dignity.’”

Cardinal O’Malley also used the big vial in his homily, explaining that the pills would have to be broken up and their contents mixed into juice or apple sauce in order to kill their recipient.


Second Thoughts

Another powerful element of the campaign against Question 2 was the contribution of Second Thoughts, a disability-rights groups led by John Kelly, 54. Kelly is paralyzed from the neck down and has been in a wheelchair since a spinal-cord accident when he was 25.

Second Thoughts would visit campaign events of liberal progressive candidates, including the newly elected U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and connect with that community.

Kelly said that his group’s task was to break up “the tired story line of culture war between religious conservatives and secular liberals.”

“We saw that with quite a bit of the early media you know where only the Catholic Church would be mentioned as an opponent, and it was just kind of liberal vs. conservative, modern vs. traditional, the same old thing,” said Kelly. “But here come these disabled people, and we busted up that narrative because we’re progressive.”

Another initiative featured “street team” events. These involved friends invited through Facebook who met to pray and develop engagement strategies and then divided into teams of two or three people and headed out to high-traffic areas of Boston. Their goal: to place the anti-Question 2 business cards in the hands of Massachusetts voters.

One participant, 28-year-old Tommy Heyne wore his medical scrubs and white lab coat while handing out cards. His next stop was a shift at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he is a resident physician.

Bob Fraser, 76, had one of the more difficult assignments on the heavily trod and trendy shopping street of Newbury.

“I appreciated the opportunity to participate in that most important question,” said Fraser, adding that he flew out on Election Day to Rome, praying for the success of the outcome.


Priests Lend a Hand

Father Michael Nolan, the pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Waltham, asked members of his congregation to hold signs at city polling stations on Nov. 6. Such sign holders, located near various polling stations across the state, provided a powerful witness as citizens entered to cast their votes.

Father Roger Landry, pastor of St. Bernadette’s Church in Fall River, held signs himself with a group for about three hours.

“I got an inkling that things were going to go very well in our area,” Father Landry recounted afterward in a column published in the Diocese of Fall River’s newspaper, The Anchor. “There were a handful of passersby who screamed insults as they passed by in their cars, but there was an enormous outpouring of support from people heading in both directions: many encouragingly tooted their horns, gave the thumbs-up sign, waved enthusiastically and even stopped traffic — somewhat dangerously — to say how happy they were to see the Church’s leadership on this ballot item,” he stated.


A Kennedy Speaks Up

Another factor in the victory was the editorials against Question 2 in The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and a variety of other newspapers. And in a state where the Kennedy name still wields considerable influence, Victoria Kennedy’s words against the measure were highly significant.

“My late husband, Sen. Edward Kennedy, called quality, affordable health care for all the cause of his life. Question 2 turns his vision of health care for all on its head by asking us to endorse patient suicide — not patient care — as our public policy for dealing with pain and the financial burdens of care at the end of life. We’re better than that,” Kennedy said in an article published by the Cape Cod Times.

Instead of assisted suicide, she called for an expansion of palliative care, pain management, nursing care and hospice. When her late husband was first diagnosed with cancer, Kennedy pointed out, he was given only two to four months to live. Instead, he lived for 15 months, illustrating the flaw of having a six-month terminal diagnosis serve as a criterion for obtaining a  lethal drug dosage.

Wrote Kennedy’s widow, “When the end finally did come — natural death with dignity — my husband was home, attended by his doctor, surrounded by family and our priest.”


Lessons Learned

The campaign against Question 2 shed more light on the need for greater awareness for end-of-life issues: palliative care, pain management and true Christian compassion needed for those undergoing severe suffering.

Janet Benestad headed up the Boston Archdiocese’s educational effort and organized and gave multiple workshops. She said that Catholics “need to understand the importance of doing education all the time.”

She highlighted the need to raise awareness about end-of-life care as a ministry and about the plight of isolated people who might be far from family and access to resources.

“Something like assisted suicide looms as a possibility to them,” Benestad said. “That ministry that reaches out to those folks is very, very important, so that no one would ever — because they feel alone or because they feel abandoned — make a choice like this.”

Ave Maria student Lombardo, who majors in history and political science, said the successful political drive in Massachusetts against Question 2 demonstrates the need of forming a coalition of “different diverse groups.”

“The message, I think, resounds best when you have a doctor, a disabilities advocate, a lawyer, a Churchman, a whole slew of people who can stand up there and say, ‘Listen, we as a community of people, we as people of different backgrounds, different political orientations, different views — we together oppose this,’” Lombardo said. “I think it’s much more compelling.”

Register correspondent Justin Bell writes from the Boston area.
He participated actively in the campaign against Question 2.