Acceptance of the Unacceptable

By Rust, Michael | Insight on the News, November 16, 1998 | Go to article overview

Acceptance of the Unacceptable

Rust, Michael, Insight on the News

Social issues once thought beyond the pale -- such as abortion and euthanasia -- increasingly are being incorporated into the political mainstream and thus gaining acceptance.

Call it a tale of two elections -- quite different on the surface, yet with slender but tangible connecting threads. One year ago voters in Oregon, by a 60-40 margin, chose not to repeal a law that permits physician-assisted suicide, making the Beaver State the first in the country to legalize the controversial procedure.

And then, during this campaign season, Geoffrey Feiger, the Democratic nominee for governor of Michigan who gained notoriety as the attorney for euthanasia advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian, sent fellow Democrats scurrying for cover with a series of often-insulting, always-outrageous remarks about Orthodox rabbis, Catholic bishops, religion in general, his opponent's family, drug addicts, elderly people and sundry other groups (see "Political Wacko," Nov. 9). Michigan had an assisted-suicide initiative on the ballot this year.

So which was the more telling election? In the Pacific Northwest, voters took a significant step into uncharted policy, one with significant legal and ethical ramifications. Yet one year later, the same issue was part of a buffoonish campaign that has had observers alternating between laughter and disgust. Actually, the two elections are part of the same process, wherein an issue or policy that once was thought beyond the pale is incorporated into the political system, gaining respectability and acceptance. Within 48 hours of the Oregon special election, historian David Garrow, a favorable chronicler of legal abortion in the United States, published an article in the New York Times comparing the Oregon result with the push in the early 1970s for legal abortion.

"Much as the crusade for abortion rights first attained significant momentum in 1970 when New York became the first big state to legalize abortion, Oregon voters' reaffirmation of an initiative they first approved narrowly in 1994 gives assisted-suicide proponents an unexpected boost," Garrow happily concluded. And indeed, the Oregon election, whether it proves to be a harbinger or an isolated incident, did break a pattern. Voters in Washington state and California earlier had rejected "right-to-die" initiatives in 1991 and 1992. And in 1994, when Oregon voters narrowly approved such a measure by a 5149 margin, a federal district judge had halted its implementation.

"The key thing that happened was that once Oregon passed it in 1994, it became an Oregon issue," says James Moore, a political scientist at the University of Portland. "It became something that people talked about around the watercooler. They didn't say, `Oh my gosh, you're horrible if you believe this.' They began to talk about it in terms of how is this going to be put into policy, and the philosophical issues."

In essence, it had been normalized. And that was what Garrow was referring to when he said the vote was a possible breakthrough. Opponents acknowledge this. "Sure, there's a very clear connection," Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the monthly First Things, tells Insight. "There's the same logic -- the logic that we're in control of life and that there are no claims that we are bound to respect that are external to ourselves."

In 1973, at the time of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision striking down restrictions on abortion, Neuhaus was a prominent left-leaning social activist and Lutheran pastor in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, N.Y. However, his revulsion at the high court's ruling helped spark a long intellectual transformation that led him both to political conservatism and the Catholic Church, in which he now is a priest.

Neuhaus, however, does not accept that euthanasia will obtain the sort of acceptance legal abortion has. "There are different dynamics in terms of the chances of turning this back," he says. …

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