Come-from-Behind Victory Against Maine Assisting Suicide Referendum Elates Anti-Euthanasia Forces

In a stunning victory that seemed out of the question only a month before, Maine voters, by a margin of 51% to 49%, rejected a referendum that sought to legalize assisting suicide. The official November 7th tally on “Question One” was 313,303 in favor and 330,671 against.

Maine joins California, Washington, and Michigan in having rejected proposals to legalize physician-assisted suicide. The lone exception is Oregon, whose experience played a key role in the competing arguments of both sides.

Close enough to cause heart palpitations, the victory in Maine was nothing short of astounding. Many political observers confidently announced that the measure was unstoppable.

Indeed, as recently as August, polls showed public support hovering around three out of every four Mainers. However, that proved to be the peak for the “death with dignity” camp.

The credit for the come-from-behind victory is widely shared. For example, Jenny Nolan, a lobbyist for the National Right to Life Department of Medical Ethics, worked tirelessly in Maine for weeks before the vote. Brian Johnston, Western Director for NRLC, author of “Death as a Salesman,” and a widely respected authority of euthanasia, produced an outstanding video which was widely shown in Maine, and personally travelled the state speaking against assisted suicide.

NRLC’s state affiliate, Maine Right to Life (MRLC), mounted an all-out charge. Throughout the fall, MRLC published and distributed thousands of newsletters, produced another very effective educational video, and sent grassroots speakers across the state to speak to rural Mainers about the dangers of assisted suicide. In late October MRLC held its annual convention, which was centered on the referendum at hand.

The unusual thing about Maine’s assisted suicide referendum was that it represented a kind of role reversal among the players. In the typical scenario, it’s the ordinary citizens on the pro- life side, attempting to persuade politicians and professionals to act accordingly.

In Maine, however, many government officials and professional groups defended the value of human life before a general public much of which had been lulled into thinking that assisted suicide represented “compassion.” Using their own professional knowledge and experience, the Maine Medical Association, the Maine Hospice Council, the Maine Psychiatric Association, and many members of the state legislature succeeded against all odds.

All this was needed, since supporters of “Question One” enjoyed enormous advantages, including backing from national pro- euthanasia organizations and lots of money. “Mainers for Death With Dignity,” the local group behind the assisted-suicide ballot, had the backing of powerful national pro-euthanasia groups, such as Hemlock USA and the Euthanasia Rights and Guidance Organization. By the end of the campaign, nearly $1.6 million had poured into their coffers, approximately 95% of the money from outside Maine.

Support for Question One began to erode slowly but steadily in September as the opponents began to unveil a carefully crafted educational campaign of their own.

More than a year before the vote, a coalition was formed to oppose the initiative. The composition reflected the institutions that would be most affected by the decisions and included the Maine Medical Association, the Maine Hospice Council, and Maine’s largest disability rights organization, Alpha One. Eventually the coalition named itself “No On One.”

On the front lines, the “No On One” campaign took on the task of educating the public by generating questions and responses in the media, attending health care forums, and debating the proponents of assisted suicide on the air. In the month before the referendum “No On One” held weekly press conferences that featured prominent local leaders: physicians, legislators, and activists speaking out against the referendum and the pro- euthanasia agenda of its leaders.

One very effective factor in the campaign, was a series of thoughtful television commercials designed to educate voters on the specific dangers of Maine’s proposed assisted-suicide law which the coalition unveiled. The ads battered away at the euphemisms of the Death With Dignity Act with facts, using the bill itself as a tool.

The commercials featured a Maine physician, a hospice director, and several Mainers who live with disabilities, all warning that the law behind Question One was littered with dangerous loopholes.

One ad focused on experiences in Oregon, the only state where assisting suicide is legal. As the camera panned over an endless scattering of little white pills, a man’s voice began to speak.

Narrating throughout accompanying imagery, the voice described the 60 to 100 pills it takes to kill a person, how lethal overdoses can be sent in the mail, and how patients in Oregon have suffered such frightening complications that families have called “911” in distress.

Then the face of the voice appeared and the man identified himself as Dr. Thomas Reardon, an Oregon family physician and the former president of the American Medical Association. The commercial’s powerful ending shows Dr. Reardon asking the citizens of Maine not to make the same mistake Oregon did.

Two of the four commercials so candidly outlined the reality of physician-assisted suicide that the Death With Dignity campaign resorted to claiming they were only “scare tactics” and demanded that the television stations pull them off the air. The “No On One” coalition responded immediately to the challenge by providing the television stations with documentation supporting each of its claims. Ultimately, all stations concluded that the ads made verifiable points and opted to continue airing them for the sake of public knowledge.

Had it passed, Question One [the Death With Dignity Act] would have peeled away long-standing protections for the dying, exposing them to the invasion of new influences at the most vulnerable points in their lives. The law would have applied to patients as young as 18 who requested assisted suicide–without requiring any family notification.

Many critics vehemently complained that the definition of ” terminal disease” was too elastic. Patients living with diabetes could meet the qualifications for having an “incurable” and ” irreversible condition,” which, if untreated, would cause death within six months.

Question One also ignored the pervasive problem of depression in the physically ill. The Death With Dignity Act lacked any requirement that a patient see a mental health professional or receive any type of counseling.

It is worth noting that Maine is one of only six states in the country that does not have a Medicaid hospice benefit to care for the dying poor.

Passage of Question One would have legalized assisted suicide before extending other health care options to those in poverty!

Stephen Tremblay, founder of Alpha One and treasurer of “No On One,” said of the proposal to legalize assisted suicide, “It has nothing to do with compassionate care. It has everything to do with a national political campaign marching into our state and forcing their agenda on Maine people.”

Powerful medical organizations celebrated the defeat of the Maine referendum.

“The American Medical Association is pleased that Maine voters have endorsed physicians’ fundamental obligation ‘to do no harm’ by defeating a flawed ballot initiative that would have turned healers away from their primary purpose,” said Randolph D. Smoak, Jr., M.D., president of the American Medical Association.

“The Maine Medical Association and the Maine Citizens Against the Dangers of Physician-Assisted Suicide are to be commended for their work in upholding the notion that terminally-ill patients should not be abandoned,” he added.

Gail Quinn, who is the executive director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, told reporters, “The defeat of the nation’s newest proposal for legalizing physician-assisted suicide is an encouraging sign for efforts to respect the life and dignity of vulnerable people.”

Quinn noted that the national euthanasia movement had targeted Maine as its “current beachhead,” and had “devoted substantial resources to the legalization effort.” Yet the assisted suicide proposal on “was soundly defeated,” Quinn said.

She also alluded to expectations some had once Oregon legalized physician-assisted suicide in 1994.

“Some said this agenda would sweep the nation,” she noted. ” Instead, 10 states have passed new laws against this deadly practice since 1994, and legalization measures have been rejected across the nation, most notably by direct votes of the people in Michigan and Maine.”

“The Maine result is one more indication that when people initially sympathetic to euthanasia in ‘hard cases’ are gradually educated about the dangers of its inevitable progression down the slippery slope, they turn against it,”said Burke Balch, J.D., director of NRLC’s Department of Medical Ethics. “Clearly, we must unite in implementing caring, positive solutions to those situations that lead some, feeling hopeless, to contemplate suicide.”