Monday, August 10, 2015

Subversive Strategies to Sell Assisted Suicide.

Dr Jacqueline Harvey
By Dr Jacqueline Harvey

The numbers don’t lie. In spite of masterful public relations campaigns to suggest otherwise, the assisted suicide movement has an abysmal record trying to legalize assisted self-destruction over the last 21 years. The suicide lobby has few victories to claim. Rather, they consistently fail at each of the strategies they employ to push their agenda. Lawmakers fail to pass assisted suicide bills 99% of the time, after lawmakers are educated of the dangers at public hearings. Ballot initiatives fail in nearly three-quarters of cases to win enough votes, even after propaganda campaigns with no public hearings. Even attempts to subvert lawmakers and voters altogether by courting judges to legislate from the bench have yielded few returns. 

Bolstered by deep pockets and a sympathetic media, we are led to believe that the assisted suicide movement is winning, when the track record shows overwhelming political failure spanning three decades.

Nowhere is it more clear how lethal education and scientific evidence are to the suicide lobby than by examining how many assisted suicide bills withstand the scrutiny of witness testimony. Since 1994, 175 bills have been introduced in 35 states and the District of Columbia and thus far, only one has prevailed. Vermont is the anomaly, the lone bill, passed in 2013 after 19 years of failed attempts to convince legislators, a success rate of .057%. Assisted suicide is an established loser with lawmakers, failing more than 99% of the time in statehouses in over 20 years. Death making does not fare well when subjected to public debate. Thus far in 2015, 25 states and the District of Columbia have introduced legislation and most bills met their demise, by either lacking support to advance, devastated by testimony and withdrawn to address concerns or simply to spare a humiliating death. A few a late-filed bills still linger after failing to launch, but are unlikely to persevere through the process or manifest as an amendment to still-viable legislation. 


A team of assisted suicide lobbyists are attempting to resurrect California’s Senate Bill SB128 through a procedural ploy that subverts the committee that rejected it and placing it on the floor for a vote, in an affront to the legislative process but in keeping with the suicide lobby’s inability to legitimately pass bills and blatant overall lack of regard for law-making and public will. They routinely circumvent lawmakers to exploit voters, and even disregard both lawmakers and voters to forcibly impose their will through the courts due to an inability to pass assisted suicide through legitimate means. Only one bill has yet prevailed at all through the legislature. A record of 1 in 175 is evidence that assisted suicide is too illegitimate an act to obtain legitimate support.

Attempts to comfort lawmakers ill-at-ease after hearing testimony about the abuses and dangers of assisted suicide are not persuasive. Rather than address the evidence from testimony which gives lawmakers reservations, the suicide lobby have decided to create lawmakers out of the uniformed voter through ballot initiatives that do not require public hearings. Assisted suicide advocates have frequently appealed to the voters who are not informed by testimony and could be swayed by emotion and deceived by sanitized language designed to manipulate their vote. 


Word choice is critical. Polls can drop 20 points against assisted suicide by using the word suicide, so the assisted suicide movement crafted terms like “aid-in-dying” to present suicide as a helpful act, rather than what is: assisted self-destruction. Suicide lobbyists fared a bit better when trying to exploit the uninformed this way but still have an overall losing record. While the success rate is a bit higher than with the traditional route that forces legislators who vote to actually understand the issue, the lobby still has only two of seven wins to its credit since 1994. Two wins in Oregon and Washington out of seven attempts is only 28.57% success rate, 71.23% of these campaigns still failed. Even without the benefit of testimony decrying the dangers of assisted suicide, people simply do not like suicide. Regardless of how assisted suicide has been rebranded for the sole purpose of overcoming this aversion, nonetheless voters have seen right through it nearly three-quarters of the time.

When lawmakers can not be convinced nor the voting public, assisted suicide lobbyists turn to activist judges to overturn laws against their will. This is why the only other two states with assisted suicide bypassed both lawmakers and voters and imposed it by judicial decree in New Mexico and Montana. The Montana court didn't actually legalize assisted suicide, but gave doctors a "defense of consent." The New Mexico court decision is currently under appeal. (The New Mexico Court of Appeal overturned the assisted suicide decision on August 11).

Attempts to subvert all voters and legislatures through the United States Supreme Court failed twice in 1997 but still allowed for lower court activism to usurp the will of the people. This strategy has prevailed just twice. In fact, such an attempt just failed in California when the judge showed disdain for such an attempt to usurp the will of the people saying that assisted suicide is “best left to the legislature, not the courts” saying that this issue requires a “legislative fix, not a judicial nix.”  Clearly judicial activism like this failed attempt is yet another hit-or-miss strategy, as well as the fact that the assisted suicide movement still puts resources into introducing and lobbying for bills in spite of having failed 174 out of 175 times in 21 years. 

The longstanding failure of the assisted suicide lobby to sell their agenda to informed lawmakers, the inability to gain enough support with the average voter or find sympathetic judges or to supplant the law points simply to the inherent problems with assisted suicide. The persistence and market research to brand suicide as something different may have deceived some into believing they support assisted suicide, yet this has not translated into political success. Furthermore, attempts to quell public debate by bypassing the legislature has not stopped educational efforts, shown in Massachusetts in 2012 to change polling from 65% in favor and 19% opposed to the ballot measure being defeated on election night. 

With three distinct strategies and three decades and only five state laws affected (two of which were are affront to the will of the people) the assisted suicide lobby simply does not reflect the political climate of the United States, in spite of efforts to manipulate public opinion. They may be relentless in their attempts to impose suicide on society but equally relentless attempts to stop them tend to always succeed.

Jacqueline C. Harvey is a public-policy scholar with Euthanasia Prevention Coalition International. She has a Ph.D. in public administration and policy and focuses on end-of-life legislation at the state level.

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