An Uncertain Future for Assisted Suicide

By Doerflinger, Richard M. | The Hastings Center Report, January 1999 | Go to article overview

An Uncertain Future for Assisted Suicide


Doerflinger, Richard M., The Hastings Center Report


The defeat of Proposal B by Michigan voters on November 3 was not a surprise. Merian's Friends, the group sponsoring this measure to legalize physician-assisted suicide for the seriously ill, was outmatched in funding and organization. Citizens for Compassionate Care united dozens of medical, religious, right-to-life, and other groups in a well-funded campaign to persuade voters that Proposal B was dangerously flawed as public policy.

More surprising, perhaps, was the margin of defeat. Proposal B lost in every one of Michigan's eighty-three counties, including those which supported Jack

Kevorkian's attorney Geoffrey Fieger in his failed bid to be governor; in all but 14 counties it lost by more than a two-to-one margin, in a state where public opinion was said to favor assisted suicide.

This was not an isolated incident. One state, Oregon, voted 51 percent to 49 percent to legalize assisted suicide for the terminally ill in 1994; the state's voters rejected a bid to repeal the law by a wider margin of 60 percent to 40 percent in 1997. But supporters' prediction that with victory in Oregon their agenda would sweep the country was mistaken.

According to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, bills on assisted suicide were introduced in twenty-six states in 1997 and 1998. But all legalization measures were easily defeated, usually dying in committee.

During this period, three states--Virginia, Michigan, and South Carolina-passed new bans on assisted suicide, following the lead of Iowa and Rhode Island, which enacted bans in 1996. Other states, such as Kansas and South Dakota, recently clarified their existing criminal statutes and added civil penalties for assisting a suicide.

At present, thirty-eight states have specific statutes against assisted suicide (although one, Oregon, has created an exception for terminally ill patients who fulfill certain guidelines); eight forbid the practice by common law or by interpretation of the state homicide statute; and four (Nevada, Hawaii, Utah, and Wyoming) have no clear law on the matter.

Proponents of assisted suicide have made several attempts to bypass legislatures through popular referenda, by which voters in some states can directly approve new laws. Based on polls showing majority support for the concept, they reasoned that state legislators tend to be cautious but would fall in line once the voters made their wishes clear. But the strategy may have backfired. With voters rejecting legalization proposals in progressive bellwether states like Washington (1991) and California (1992), legislators in those states and voters elsewhere may now be even less willing to take the leap. …

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