Social issues once thought beyond the pale -- such as abortion and euthanasia -- increasingly are being incorporated into the political mainstream and thus gaining acceptance.
Call it a tale of two elections -- quite different on the surface, yet with slender but tangible connecting threads. One year ago voters in Oregon, by a 60-40 margin, chose not to repeal a law that permits physician-assisted suicide, making the Beaver State the first in the country to legalize the controversial procedure.
And then, during this campaign season, Geoffrey Feiger, the Democratic nominee for governor of Michigan who gained notoriety as the attorney for euthanasia advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian, sent fellow Democrats scurrying for cover with a series of often-insulting, always-outrageous remarks about Orthodox rabbis, Catholic bishops, religion in general, his opponent's family, drug addicts, elderly people and sundry other groups (see "Political Wacko," Nov. 9). Michigan had an assisted-suicide initiative on the ballot this year.
So which was the more telling election? In the Pacific Northwest, voters took a significant step into uncharted policy, one with significant legal and ethical ramifications. Yet one year later, the same issue was part of a buffoonish campaign that has had observers alternating between laughter and disgust. Actually, the two elections are part of the same process, wherein an issue or policy that once was thought beyond the pale is incorporated into the political system, gaining respectability and acceptance. Within 48 hours of the Oregon special election, historian David Garrow, a favorable chronicler of legal abortion in the United States, published an article in the New York Times comparing the Oregon result with the push in the early 1970s for legal abortion.
"Much as the crusade for abortion rights first attained significant momentum in 1970 when New York became the first big state to legalize abortion, Oregon voters' reaffirmation of an initiative they first approved narrowly in 1994 gives assisted-suicide proponents an unexpected boost," Garrow happily concluded. And indeed, the Oregon election, whether it proves to be a harbinger or an isolated incident, did break a pattern. Voters in Washington state and California earlier had rejected "right-to-die" initiatives in 1991 and 1992. And in 1994, when Oregon voters narrowly approved such a measure by a 5149 margin, a federal district judge had halted its implementation.
"The key thing that happened was that once Oregon passed it in 1994, it became an Oregon issue," says James Moore, a political scientist at the University of Portland. "It became something that people talked about around the watercooler. They didn't say, `Oh my gosh, you're horrible if you believe this.' They began to talk about it in terms of how is this going to be put into policy, and the philosophical issues."
In essence, it had been normalized. And that was what Garrow was referring to when he said the vote was a possible breakthrough. Opponents acknowledge this. "Sure, there's a very clear connection," Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the monthly First Things, tells Insight. "There's the same logic -- the logic that we're in control of life and that there are no claims that we are bound to respect that are external to ourselves."
In 1973, at the time of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision striking down restrictions on abortion, Neuhaus was a prominent left-leaning social activist and Lutheran pastor in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, N.Y. However, his revulsion at the high court's ruling helped spark a long intellectual transformation that led him both to political conservatism and the Catholic Church, in which he now is a priest.
Neuhaus, however, does not accept that euthanasia will obtain the sort of acceptance legal abortion has. "There are different dynamics in terms of the chances of turning this back," he says. "Old people, for obvious reasons, are very nervous about assisted suicide." Neuhaus also points out that opposition to the practice cuts across usual political boundaries. "It's noteworthy that the Nation magazine, for example, the flagship of the sinking left, has not come out in favor of doctor-assisted suicide." Also, he points out, Supreme Court decisions last year make it unlikely that the court would play the sort of role with assisted suicide that it did with abortion. "So I think we stand a very good chance of turning this one back."
Still, it's often forgotten just how quickly accepted wisdom turned on the question of abortion. Barely two months before the January 1973 decision, voters in Michigan soundly defeated a heavily favored referendum legalizing abortion. "As Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg once said, it simply speeded up what was already happening. Well, that's a crock," comments Neuhaus. "It's simply not true. The country was moving in the other direction." At the time of Roe vs. Wade only Colorado, California, Oregon and New York had liberalized abortion laws -- all pushed by Republican governors.
Much can change quickly in politics. In 1993, American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene observed that one difference between that year's Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of conservatives in Washington, and the first held 20 years earlier was that in 1973 a majority of the conservatives in attendance were pro-choice, while in the 1990s they were overwhelmingly pro-life. Before 1973, most Democrats, including liberals such as Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, opposed abortion; as late as the early 1980s, Jesse Jackson, future House majority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri and future vice president Al Gore were toeing the pro-life line.
At the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami -- widely regarded as the most left-leaning ever -- strategists for eventual nominee George McGovern, afraid that a pro-choice platform would prove disastrous in the general election, "began cracking the whip over their delegates," wrote former New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm in her 1973 book, The Good Fight: "Arms were twisted all over the floor. The plank, which probably would have been defeated even if McGovern had honored his promise to keep aloof, was heavily defeated. [Bella] Abzug, [Gloria] Steinem and others were furious."
Yet 20 years later, in 1992, Bill Clinton became the first presidential nominee to make support for legal abortion part of his acceptance speech. The arms twisted at that year's convention in New York belonged to pro-life Democrats such as Gov. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who was denied an opportunity to address the convention. The vagaries of politics had taken their toll. As Democratic social conservatives were attracted to the New Right of the 1970s, social liberals gained a lock hold on the Democratic Party. In 1988, during the last desperate days of his dying campaign, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis became the first presidential candidate to make pro-choice rhetoric part of his stump speech -- but within four years it had become de rigueur.
So accepted orthodoxy can change quickly. Between 1994 and 1997, the accepted status quo changed in Oregon. Last year, the challenge was framed in the original question of whether Oregon should have physician-assisted suicide, and "Oregon's political thinking had moved beyond that, even though it was a very close vote," notes Moore. "I think 5 to 10 percent of the margin the second time around was people saying, `We may like or not like assisted suicide, but you outsiders can't tell us what to do.'"
The repeal campaign was not helped among moderates by its public identification with the national right-to-life movement. Local media referred to the repeal campaign's chief organizer as "from Terre Haute, Indiana -- which did not play incredibly well," Moore dryly notes. The Catholic Church strongly favored the measure, and some pro-assisted-suicide ads focused specifically on anti-Catholic themes, which had an effect in that state with the lowest religious affiliation in the union.
Oregon already was fertile ground for this kind of legal and ethical change. In 1969, it became the third state to liberalize abortion restrictions and, in 1973, became the first to decriminalize marijuana and impose rigid land-use controls. By the time the first assisted-suicide referendum occurred in 1994, the stage was set. "Assisted suicide was on the ballot here because people were concerned about end-of-life issues," explains political scientist Moore. "I'm not sure assisted suicide would have come up as the No. 1 choice, but Oregon was ripe for that kind of thing." In fact, the first person Kevorkian helped over the edge was an elderly Oregon woman whose husband was very open with the media about his wife's fatal decision.
Even so, the 1994 margin of approval was razor-thin, despite a high-financed "yes" campaign. But that vote was able to shift the entire perspective of the debate. Moore points out that when issues constantly are brought to the ballot, in essence, people get bored with the original arguments and look for new twists on the subject. "We find in Oregon, when we have these social issues on the ballot, the first time people paint them as `it's the nuts vs. the wackos,' but then it becomes part of the political reality. And then the next time, people say, `well those arguments were really done the last time. What are some other good arguments for or against?'"
That evolution can be seen today in the issue of medical use of marijuana, on the ballot in a number of states and the District of Columbia this year. The opposition is still saying, "It leads to criminality", and those who are for it are saying, "No, it helps with pain." And the public, in effect, is really getting beyond that, saying, "Okay, does it really lead to criminality? How do you explain that to us?"
Of course, explaining is one of those messy things many politicians would just as soon avoid. In the last congressional session, some on Capitol Hill attempted to pass legislation overriding state laws legalizing physician-assisted suicide. The Oregon congressional delegation, for the most part, declined to take part. Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Elizabeth Furse, both Democrats, said that while they had voted against physician-assisted suicide, they would not work to override the will of Oregon voters.
And that attitude has spread in Oregon. GOP congressional candidate Marilen Shannon, running against liberal incumbent Rep. Darlene Hooley, has declined to oppose assisted suicide this year despite her strong opposition to abortion.
The 20 percent margin of victory in last year's referendum concentrated the minds of politicians. In Michigan, Feiger's gubernatorial effort is discounted by just about everyone; still, Moore admits that the joke campaign of Kevorkian's lawyer "could very easily be" the forerunner of a serious, nuanced, effective effort by a media-savvy candidate with the same views two, four, eight or 12 years from now. Once a previously unthinkable policy option is accepted by the public as just that -- a noncoercive option -- it becomes part of the political system, says Moore. "It's the acceptance of the unacceptable."…