Choice on Physician-Assisted Suicide Comes Home
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 1998; Page A20
ANN ARBOR, Mich. In Oregon in 1996, it passed by the narrowest of margins, 51 to 49 percent, and then, when the legislature ordered a second vote, the majority increased to 60 percent. In three other states where it reached the ballot, it has been turned down.
And now the issue of physician-assisted suicide, with all its moral, religious and ethical conflicts, has come to Michigan, the home state of Jack Kevorkian, who has made a career of escorting patients into the next world.
Earlier this year, the Michigan legislature enacted a ban on assisted suicide, passing a criminal statute designed to close the legal loopholes that allowed Kevorkian to escape punishment in all three of the cases in which he has been tried.
In November, voters will approve or reject Proposal B, which would supersede the new law and allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication on request from patients certified to be mentally competent and diagnosed by two physicians as having less than six months to live.
Polls have shown the measure in the lead, but a well-financed TV and grass-roots campaign funded by church groups and caregivers has proponents of the measure gloomily predicting its defeat. "If we don't get some help quickly," said Edward C. Pierce, the retired physician and former state senator who leads supporters, "we're in real trouble. The polls show support dropping significantly."
A poll published last weekend in the Detroit Free Press had Proposal B leading 48 to 40 percent, but a private survey taken for backers of the measure, using the actual ballot language, showed a 43 to 43 percent tie. John Fairbank, who took the private poll, said it showed a 56 percent majority support the right to physician-assisted suicide in principle, but he added that "the unanswered TV campaign" has persuaded many that the specifics of Proposal B make it unworthy of support.
Pierce is at the center of a circle in this university town who vowed to memorialize Merian Frederick, a civic activist and lover of the arts, who contracted Lou Gehrig's disease in 1989 and four years later when she could no longer speak and could write only a few lines at a time visited Kevorkian and his "death machine." Kevorkian was acquitted of killing her at a 1996 trial, and in that same year, Pierce and others formed "Merian's Friends," to solicit signatures for a ballot initiative to "provide a better alternative" for others facing lingering death.
It took them a year to get the proposal written 12,000 words of amendments to several sections of the Michigan civil and criminal code and when they turned to collecting the quarter-million valid signatures they would need to qualify the initiative, "it became obvious we couldn't do it with volunteers."
"We're too old," said the 68-year-old Pierce. So they hired a Nevada-based, professional signature-gathering firm, National Voter Outreach. But as the filing deadline approached, the price per name rose from 90 cents to $1.50 and they ran out of money, Pierce said. He and others in the circle lent the campaign $180,000 and after surviving a challenge to the use of out-of-state circulators they made the November ballot.
But the effort exhausted their resources, even as it stirred a powerful coalition into opposition. Calling itself "Citizens for Compassionate Care," the opposition force includes the Michigan Catholic Conference and major Baptist, Lutheran, Christian Reformed and Assemblies of God churches, the Michigan State Medical Society, the state's hospices, advocacy groups for the elderly and the disabled, Right to Life of Michigan, the state Republican Party and its leader, Gov. John Engler.
The proponents have some big names too, including former GOP governor William Milliken and his wife, Helen, former United Auto Workers president Douglas Fraser and several Democratic officials.
But financially, it is a mismatch. The opposition coalition, according to its attorney and spokesman, John Pirich, is "on track" to reach its goal of $5 million. "Merian's Friends," according to Pierce, had $100,000 in the bank last weekend and "hopes" of reaching $750,000 in contributions by the end of the campaign.
Kenneth Phifer, the Unitarian-Universalist minister who counseled Merian Frederick on her decision and accompanied her on her trip to Kevorkian's apartment, said he feels inhibited about urging his parishioners to contribute to the campaign, "because they have many causes they support," while pastors on the other side "work with intensity to produce money and votes. They feel their eternal life depends on it."
The opposition has been on TV since Labor Day, with a series of hard-hitting ads. The proponents are not sure if they can take their campaign to the airwaves, but are having ads made in case the money comes in.
While priests and ministers are making the religious case to their parishioners, the opposition is avoiding moral arguments in its TV spots and focusing on what it sees as vulnerabilities in the lengthy statute. One ad says Proposal B would set up a costly new state bureaucracy to regulate physicians. Another says the provision requiring that the underlying disease not the lethal prescription be listed as the cause of death "would force doctors to lie." Another targets the fact that the proposal offers physician-assisted suicide not just to Michigan residents but to close relatives who live in other states. That TV spot begins with the theological question, "Where do we go when we die," and ends with a photograph of a cemetery where the headstones are engraved with the word "Michigan."
"Northwest will sell a lot of one-way tickets to Detroit if this passes," Pirich warns.
Pierce and his allies point out that Oregon has recorded only eight cases of lethal prescriptions since the courts upheld its law in November. Their literature urges voters to "repeal the state's ban on letting patients control their last days. Show the dictators of pain and suffering in the legislature that you won't allow them to take these rights away from you."
The mailings also state that "Merian's Friends is not connected with Dr. Kevorkian and does not approve of his methods." Even though their namesake went to Kevorkian for help, Pierce said, "Jack does not approve of what we are doing. He wants no law at all. He opposes the restrictions in our proposal." But Pierce conceded, "A lot of the public thinks we are connected to him, even though we never have been."
When opposition spokesman Pirich was asked if there was "a Kevorkian factor" in the initiative, he said, "Absolutely. Merian's Friends will argue theirs is a much more natural, compassionate procedure than Kevorkian uses. But if this passes, he will say this is a public endorsement of the concept, if not the exact methods he uses. Once you've crossed that line, it plays into his hands."
The outcome of the election is not an academic matter for Bob Reeves, a 67-year-old retired Ann Arbor teacher who has been working as a volunteer for Merian's Friends. After exploratory surgery in July, he was told he had an inoperable brain tumor that will take his life in less than a year.
"It scares me," he said in the campaign's basement office, "when the state of Michigan says it is criminal to help me decide when and how to die. I have worked hard and paid taxes all my life. I served in the military. And I don't think the government has a right to step inside the boundaries of my private life and make that decision for me."
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