SACRAMENTO, JUNE 15 -- Leaders of the nation's largest antiabortion organization expressed growing concern today over efforts to limit health care for comatose patients and the seriously ill elderly.
Although still focused on the abortion issue, the annual convention of the National Right to Life Committee Inc., has included several speeches and workshops on euthanasia -- mercy killing of the sick or disabled -- and called for more attention to proposed restrictions on health care for the elderly.
Burke Balch, the group's state legislative director, predicted today that health-care rationing plans like one proposed in Oregon would become a key national issue within two years. He said such efforts to stretch health-care dollars by banning public financing of some expensive, life-sustaining procedures stem from "a mood of despair mixed with rationalization" that inhibits "creative thinking" on the problem.
Rather that cut health care for the elderly, Balch said, states should explore ways to cut costs with incentives for families willing to keep seriously ill patients at home rather than in expensive hospitals. "We have to emphasize that alternatives do exist," Balch said in an interview. He said American bioethicists appear to be moving in the opposite direction, preparing the ground for what one European bioethicist called "active involuntary euthanasia."
Workshops here discussed the case of Nancy Cruzan, a comatose Missouri woman whose parents have sought the right to hasten her death by cutting off food and water. National Right to Life as well as Missouri officials have opposed the parents' efforts, and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Cruzan v. Missouri is expected within weeks.
A ruling against the parents, Balch said, would boost his organization's efforts to persuade states to expand legal protections for severely ill patients unable to communicate their desires about withholding nutrients.
National Right to Life Committee communications director Nancy Myers said the organization is also strongly opposed to use of the "suicide machine" that allegedly allowed an Oregon woman diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease to end her life. Myers said allowing patients to use such devices willingly could eventually lead to a weakening of the restrictions on euthanasia of people who cannot express their wishes.
John C. Willke, an Ohio physician who is president of the group, said "it is much more difficult to fight euthanasia" than abortion. "Abortion is a debater's dream," he said. "There are only two or three basic questions: Is it a kid or not? Is it alive or dead?" The issues surrounding euthanasia "are more blurred, with much greater shades of gray," he said.
At least one convention speaker, however, challenged suggestions that doctors should ever assist in shortening the life of a patient in pain. University of Minnesota associate professor of philosophy John M. Dolan criticized a new oath for doctors, written for a recent graduation ceremony at his university's medical school, that said "death is not always an enemy."
Meanwhile, convention delegates continued to discuss organizing tactics to counter a resurgent abortion-rights movement. Balch told one workshop the antiabortion movement still has a better grass-roots organization, but has a 5-to-1 financial disadvantage and had suffered from recent stories by what he described as unfriendly journalists suggesting candidates could no longer win on an antiabortion platform.
He also criticized antiabortion activists who demanded their lobbyists push for nothing less than a ban on all abortions except those that threaten the life of the mother.
Convention speakers also criticized research indicating no long-term adverse impacts, and in some cases benefits, for women who undergo abortions. Developmental psychologist Wanda Franz said one study supported by Planned Parenthood skewed results by suggesting unwed mothers in one urban area left school because they became pregnant, but did not consider the possibility they became pregnant as an excuse to leave school.