Society Divided on Assisted Suicide Washington Campaign Suggests That People Back Concept in Principle Yet Harbor Concerns. EUTHANASIA

Article excerpt

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 physician-assisted suicide.

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 organized religion.

"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 magazine. …


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