The other pro-life movement
Opponents work to stop the progress of assisted suicide in the United States
This year, as a seventh country legalized euthanasia, 16 U.S. states considered bills that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication for terminally ill patients, according to the pro-euthanasia group Death with Dignity. In 2013, only eight state legislatures were looking at euthanasia proposals. But then in 2014, the story of Brittany Maynard, a terminally ill 29-year-old who committed suicide with a doctor’s help, caught the nation’s attention.
Scott Fischbach, executive director of Minnesota Concerned Citizens for Life (MCCL), said Maynard’s story changed how his organization operates. When he first started volunteering with the group in 1978, protecting babies from abortion received the organization’s full attention. “Now I’d say it’s almost 50-50” split between abortion and euthanasia, he said.
The increasing push for legal assisted suicide and euthanasia in the United States has led some groups that once focused solely on protecting the unborn to diversify their efforts. But end-of-life concerns attract a different crowd than the anti-abortion movement, and pro-life groups have struggled to build as much excitement and momentum for fighting euthanasia as fighting for babies.
Nine states and the District of Columbia already allow assisted suicide. Maine became the latest to legalize it in June 2019, joining California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, New Jersey, Vermont, and Washington. Montana allows the practice due to a state Supreme Court decision in 2009.
Minnesota is one of the 16 states where legislators introduced an assisted suicide bill in the past year. It and other past attempts to legalize euthanasia failed—so far.
In Wisconsin, another state that considered assisted suicide legislation this year, the first “death with dignity” bill appeared in the 1995-1996 legislative session. Of the 12 legislative sessions since then, nine have seen similar proposals. None has passed, but that push in the mid-1990s led the National Right to Life’s Wisconsin affiliate to begin actively fighting against physician-assisted suicide. Kristen Nupson, legislative director for Wisconsin Right to Life, said her organization probably spends 25 percent of its time promoting a pro-life approach to the end of life. She said protecting life at its end poses different challenges than safeguarding it at its beginning.
“Physician-assisted suicide is more difficult to raise awareness and educate on because it is more nuanced than the abortion issue,” Nupson said. “For example, what qualifies as ‘aid-in-dying’? Is it when physicians remove feeding tubes? Or turn off oxygen support? Can withholding these things be considered physician-assisted suicide, or is it just ‘letting nature take its course’?”
The Supreme Court took up the assisted suicide question in a 1997 case but ultimately ruled that there was no constitutional right to euthanasia and allowed states to decide for themselves. That’s a good thing, but the momentum of the pro-life, anti-euthanasia movement suffers from not having a defining, flashbulb event such as Roe v. Wade.
“I don’t think there was sort of one galvanizing moment here,” said Jennifer Popik, director of federal legislation at the National Right to Life Committee.
While abortion attracts the attention of the faith community and individuals interested in mother and infant care, Fischbach said end-of-life concerns draw a different coalition that includes disability rights advocates and those vested in hospice and palliative care—groups that often have no interest in the rights of the unborn. Popik noted beliefs about abortion often fall along party lines, while those about the end of life don’t.
But Fischbach sees the perks of this distinct coalition: “It’s an opportunity to share the pro-life movement philosophy and ideology of respect for all individuals with a new audience.”
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