Assisted-Suicide Activism: Patience and Plastic Bags

Article excerpt

"We are nowhere near where we thought we would be." That statement, by Emory University Law Ichool Professor David Garrow, epitomizes the sentiments of assisted-suicide advocates.

In 1994, Oregon became the only place in the world with a law that specifically made assisted suicide a "medical treatment."1 When it went into effect in 1997,2 assisted-suicide activists expected a domino effect. They were certain that, within five years, state after state would have similar laws on the books and that they would be well on their way to reaching their real goal-legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide on demand.3

They were wrong.

Since passage of Oregon's law, activists have been trying to extend assisted-suicide tentacles beyond Oregon. Additional initiative campaigns have been waged. Court cases have been filed. Legislative proposals have been introduced. With each new effort, these activists have sought and received financial backing from deep-pocket donors. Each time, they have predicted victory. Each time they have met with failure. They have only a string of losses to show for their labors and for millions of dollars in expenditures.

Both frustration over these failures and a dogged determination to forge ahead were evident at two recent assisted-suicide conferences. But just how to proceed is becoming a matter of considerable debate within the ranks of the pro-death lobby. On one side are those who view past efforts as investments that should be used as building blocks for repeat attempts in target states. This faction wants to continue to focus primarily on achieving victory through legislative and judicial channels. On the other side are the movement's militants-who want to defy or circumvent the law.

Conspiracy to Suppress

"We are here to commemorate the five year experiment in the State of Oregon, and it has worked!" With that proclamation, Estelle Rogers,4 executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Death with Dignity National Center, opened the "Fifth Anniversary Forum: Results of the Oregon 'Experiment.'" The conference-held in Portland, Oregon on October 24, 2002-attracted about sixty assisted-suicide advocates, many of whom are the movement's most influential strategists and planners (but are little known outside academic and professional circles).

Speakers at the conference praised Oregon's assisted-suicide law over and over again, pointing to official reports as evidence that the law is working flawlessly.5 At the same time, however, they expressed dismay that it had not been replicated throughout the country, and gave various reasons.

One of the most bizarre explanations was advanced by Charles Baron, a Professor of Law at Boston College Law School and Hemlock Society activist,6 who said Oregon's law "has been more successful than any of us could have dreamed," but that other states haven't embraced it because assisted-suicide opponents have suppressed news of the law's success. He didn't explain how this information blockade has been accomplished, but Baron believes it exists and sees it as a conspiracy to keep other states from learning about Oregon's law, thus preventing others from wanting what Oregon has. He compared his perceived assisted-suicide information blackout to slave owners' actions and to modern-day racist opposition to minority success. "The State of Virginia would give freed slaves six mules to pick up and leave," he said, because if other slaves saw those who were free, they would want the same freedom for themselves. Referring to instances when successful African-Americans have experienced racism and bigotry, Baron said that opponents of assisted suicide can't tolerate the successful "living example" of death with dignity in Oregon.

The "Good Things" and the "Bad Things"

Like Baron, conference speaker David Garrow also noted his disappointment that the expected bounce from the Oregon law has not materialized, as he walked his audience through the "good things" and the "bad things" that have occurred during the last five years. …