[Yale Kamisar is the Clarence Darrow Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan Law School. The following article is a composite he kindly prepared-at our request-of two op-ed pieces which originally appeared elsewhere; one in the New York Times (November 4, 1998), the other in the Detroit News (November 5, 1998).]
Some commentators and participants in the national debate over physician-assisted suicide (PAS) made much of the fact that in 1997 Oregon voters reaffirmed their support for assisted suicide by a much larger margin than the initial 1994 vote. The state legislature had put the initiative (which had initially passed by a 5149% vote) back on the ballot for an unprecedented second vote. This time the initiative was reaffirmed overwhelmingly, 60-40%.
Barbara Coombs Lee, Executive Director of Compassion in Dying (an organization that counsels people considering PAS and one of the plaintiffs in Washington v. Glucksberg, 1997), hailed the second Oregon vote as "a turning point for the death with dignity movement." David Garrow, a frequent writer on the subject, called the landslide vote "a good indicator of where America may be headed." Still another commentator (Winifred Gallagher, writing in the New York Times Book Review) viewed the lopsided vote as a demonstration of "[h]ow far, and how fast, public opinion is moving on this issue."
But the overwhelming defeat, last November, of Proposal B, the Michigan initiative to legalize physician-assisted suicide, has stopped the idea for now. Combined with the failure of Washington state and California ballot measures for "aid in dying" in the early 1990s, proponents of assisted suicide have done quite poorly in the public arena. Their records look especially anemic when one considers none of the bills proposing the legalization of the practice in more than 20 states have gone anywhere.
Oregon appears to be a striking exception to this trend. The most plausible explanation for the large margin by which Oregon voters supported assisted suicide the second time around was their resentment that the state Legislature had forced them to vote on the issue again after it was narrowly approved 51-49 percent initially. This was the first time in state history the Legislature had tried to repeal a voter-passed initiative.
Several months before the Michigan vote, polls indicated that Proposal B would pass by a comfortable margin. The same thing happened in Washington and California. What changed the tide of public opinion in these situations?
Proponents of Proposal B complain that they were overwhelmed by the TV ads of their much better-funded adversaries. This explanation would seem to make sense. The initiative was opposed by 30 groups, including the Catholic Conference, Right to Life, the state medical society, the state hospice association and a disability rights group.
Money, though, is not the whole story.The Michigan experience-where the proposal to legalize PAS failed by more than 40 percentage points-shows that it is much easier to sell the basic notion of assisted suicide than to sell a complex statute making the idea law.
The wrenching case where a dying person is suffering unavoidable pain is the main reason there is so much support for the concept of assisted suicide in this country (as opposed to support for specific laws). All too often, a reporter thinks the way to treat the issue in depth is to give a detailed account of someone who is begging for help in committing suicide. But such cases-which are relatively rare-- blot out what might be called societal or public policy considerations, like how to tell if the patient actually has treatable but hard-to-detect depression. …