IN the abstract, most Americans apparently favor the right to
end one's own life with the help of a doctor. But when they enter
the quiet privacy of the voting booth, when they consider their own
lives and especially those of their loved ones, the enormity of the
question can bring a different result that touches on deep ethical
concerns and religious beliefs.
This is the lesson many analysts are drawing from Tuesday's
election in Washington State, where voters rejected an initiative
to allow physicians to participate in euthanasia. Those who
supported the measure say the defeat came because of insufficient
legislative safeguards to prevent abuse, which backers say will be
remedied in similar efforts underway in California and Oregon and
are being seriously discussed in a number of other states.
"The public has thought it through and decided it wants it,"
says Jack Nicholl, campaign director for Californians Against Human
Suffering, which last month started gathering signatures for the
1992 ballot. Mr. Nicholl and others note last week's national poll,
sponsored by the Boston Globe and the Harvard School of Public
Health, which showed that 64 percent of Americans favor
Backers of such measures also point out that the Roman Catholic
Church poured considerable money into blocking the Washington
initiative, which happened to be listed alongside a controversial
abortion-rights measure. But organized religion alone does not
explain the opposition. Next to Oregon, Washington has the highest
percentage of people who do not identify themselves with any
"Legalization of euthanasia poses a far deeper moral crisis than
we may appreciate," observes Edmund Pellegrino, a physician and
director of the Center for Advanced Study of Ethics at Georgetown
University, in a paper written earlier this year. "It challenges us
to define what it really means to be a physician. It forces us to
define who we are, what we are, and what we want to be."
In Washington, the issue was presented as one of "choice;"
backers avoided the use of the word euthanasia. But here, too, deep
moral and ethical questions are raised. Daniel Callahan, director
of The Hastings Center (an independent research organization
dealing with medical ethics), says that unlike suicide, euthanasia
"should be understood as of its nature a social act."
"We should not deceive ourselves into thinking of euthanasia ...
as merely personal acts, just a slight extension of the already-
established right to control our bodies and to have medical
treatment terminated," he wrote in a recent issue of Commonweal