Assisted-Suicide Advocates Have High Hopes in Court

CONFIDENT OF A positive ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court next year and predicting total victory by the end of the century, advocates of assisted suicide gathered in Denver, Colo. last month for the ninth national conference of the Hemlock Society.

Approximately 250 activists, representing 30 states, heard from a virtual “Who's Who” list of euthanasia advocates, including Geoffrey Fieger, attorney for Jack Kevorkian; Seattle attorney Kathryn Tucker who, in January, will argue one of the assisted suicide cases facing the U.S. Supreme Court; and Hemlock Society founder and author of the how-to book on suicide Final Exit, Derek Humphry.

Headquartered in Denver, the Hemlock Society claims 25,000 members nationwide, chapters in many states, and is the oldest and largest organization in the “right to die” movement.

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear the appeals of two landmark cases from New York and Washington state dealing with physician-assisted suicide, Hemlock members are openly optimistic. The cases, Vacco v. Quill from the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Washington v. Glucksburg in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, each address different legal questions surrounding assisted suicide. However the Supreme Court's ruling—which is expected in June of 1997—is expected to reshape the battle over whether patients have the constitutional right to ask a physician to be directly involved in ending their lives. The issue and put state legislatures in the hot seat.

Anticipating the upcoming battles in state legislatures, state Hemlock leaders gathered a day before the conference for a special legislative session to discuss political strategy. Facilitated by four present or past state legislators from Maine, Colorado, Washington, and Wisconsin, the legislative conference included detailed updates on what is happening on various state levels, effective legislative activity, grassroots lobbying, and the components of model legislation.

Democratic State Rep. Fred Richardson of Maine encouraged the activists to introduce assisted suicide legislation at the state level, regardless of the political landscape. Richardson's bill in the Maine state legislature to legalize physician-assisted suicide gathered 20 co-sponsors last session, and he expects the bill to pass at least one house of the legislature in 1997. He promised the leaders that legislative success can happen anywhere in the country.

“We have the people,” said Richardson, citing national polls he claims show overwhelming support for physician-assisted suicide. “we must bring that fact to bear on the legislators— and the key to that is grassroots lobbying.”

In addition to the nuts and bolts of lobbying for assisted suicide, Richardson also counseled Hemlock leaders on the most effective way to combat opposition to assisted suicide on the state level. Opposition from groups that care for the dying, such as Hospice, can greatly damage a bill's chances, he said, but he suggested some legislators are beginning to see Hospice's “vested self-interest” in stopping assisted suicide, such as loss of funds for the group and its leaders.

Calling pro-life activists “hysterical crazies,” Richardson suggested the creation of “front organizations” to combat the steady opposition from groups such as state branches of the American Medical Association, Hospice, nurses organizations, AIDS activists, and members of the religious community. These front groups will dilute the potency of these other organizations' opposition, he said.

Colorado Democratic State Rep. Peggy Lamm, sister-in-law of former Colorado Gov. and presidential candidate Richard Lamm, encouraged assisted suicide activists to keep pressing legislators to take a stand on the issue. Both Lamm and Richardson agreed that more and more state legislators are privately stating their support for legalizing assisted suicide, but consider the issue too much of a political liability at this point. Lamm predicted that this fear will disappear if, as she expects, the Supreme Court gives the green light to state legislatures to begin allowing assisted suicide, at least in certain circumstances.

The switch in the assisted suicide debate from the courts to state legislatures is not entirely new. Currently, 38 states explicitly prohibit assisted suicide, while most others prohibit it through common law. Many supporters of assisted suicide, including state Hemlock Society chapters, have attempted in recent years to repeal various states' statutes prohibiting the practice. No state legislature has actually passed a bill legalizing assisted suicide, although voters in the state of Oregon narrowly approved a pro-assisted suicide law in a 1994 voter initiative. An injunction to stop Oregon from enforcing its law was issued, and the law remains on hold until the Supreme Court rules in the two cases it is currently considering.

This expected switch back to state legislatures has some pro-life leaders concerned. Mary Matuska, a 22-year pro-life veteran and state director of Pro-Life Wisconsin, said she sees assisted suicide activists following the same path abortion advocates did in the early 1970s. Matuska's organization has fought two attempts in the past three years to legalize assisted suicide in Wisconsin—and succeeded each time. But she worries about the future.

“The same arguments used to strip preborn children of their rights are now being used to justify giving physicians the right to kill their patients,” she said. “They're using the same body of law and many of the same legislators. If we're not vigilant now, I'm afraid we'll be facing the Roe v. Wade of assisted suicide in 1997.”

Matuska's fears are verified by Kathryn Tucker, the lawyer for the Washington-based Compassion in Dying, and the Ninth Circuit Court that ruled in March that there is a “right to die” in the Constitution and a right to determine “the time and manner of one's own death.” This right, the Court said, is like a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy, an “intimate and personal choice.” Tucker acknowledged during the Hemlock conference that her legal defense of the right to assisted suicide is based on a woman's right to “reproductive freedom.” She also noted that several women's rights groups, including the Center for Reproductive Law and Public Policy, have also filed amicus briefs to the Supreme Court in support of assisted suicide.

“Just as the state interest in protecting the potential for life increases later in pregnancy, the state interest in protecting life should diminish as the potential for life decreases,” said Tucker. “The focus is on personal choice.”

While repeatedly linking their struggle to abortion, Hemlock leaders also reiterated the importance of public opinion polls in strengthening their political position. Speakers consistently quoted statistics claiming 75-85 percent of the public supports assisted suicide, yet a new poll commissioned by the National Hospice Organization and published in the Oct. 8 edition of Washington Post Health found that Americans are almost evenly split on the question. The poll's results found 50 percent of those surveyed believe assisted suicide should be legal, while 41 percent wanted it to remain illegal. In addition, it found that fear of pain and “losing one's dignity” were not the greatest fears associated with dying. Instead, “being a burden to your family and friends” was cited by 40 percent of the respondents, almost three times as often as fear of pain.

Statistics like these give pro-lifers like Matuska hope. I still believe that when people find out what assisted suicide really is and where it will lead our society, they will reject it,” she said. “But it's a battle and pro-lifers must be educated, energized, and organized.… We have to be, the stakes are high.”

Greg Chesmore is national field director with the