by Fr. Charles Irvin
On November 3, 1998, by a 70% to 30% margin, the electorate of Michigan defeated a legislative initiative known as “Proposal B” which would have legalized and established doctor assisted suicide. The proposal was presented on the November 3rd ballot in approximately one-hundred sixteen words, the controlling language being as follows: Section 1 – Allow a Michigan resident, or certain out-of-state relatives of Michigan residents, confirmed by one psychiatrist to be mentally competent and two physicians to be terminally ill with six months or less to live, to obtain a lethal dose of medication to end his/her life, and Section 2 – Allow physicians, after following required procedures, to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to enable a terminally ill adult to end his/her life.
These first two sections were relatively straightforward and uncomplicated. Many wondered, however, if reputable doctors would be able to “certify” that anyone would die within six months!
The proponents of physician assisted suicide went on to include the following frightening provision: Section 3 – Establish a gubernatorially appointed, publicly funded oversight committee, exempt from the Open Meetings Act and whose records, including confidential medical records, and minutes are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
What few voters knew was the fact that behind this ballot proposal was a 20,000 word piece of legislation that was filled with detailed governmental “controls” that purported to protect individuals from being put to death without their expressed and freely chosen intention. The acts and deliberations of the non-elected politically appointed oversight committee were to be clothed in secrecy. The language permitted the committee order that the deceased’s death certificate state a cause of death other than suicide. This was to prevent family members and insurance companies from determining the real cause of death. The committee could forbid autopsies and order the deceased’s remains be cremated to further disguise the real cause of death. Curiously, the perspective from many voters favoring assisted suicide was that all of the rules and regulations contained within the legislation were too onerous. Jack Kevorkian, Michigan’s infamous Doctor Death, publicly denounced the Proposal and urged voters to reject it! And, of course, Libertarians likewise denounced the proposal because of governmental involvement.
The normal route for proposed new legislation is first to assign it to a lower house committee which would conduct open and public hearings on the bill. Testimony from the public would be sought. The committee would then deliberate and refine the proposed legislation and then present it to the State House of Representatives. There it would be further debated and amended, and then sent on to the State Senate where the proposed legislation would undergo further refinements. If passed by the State Senate this new proposed legislation would then be sent to the Governor for signature. Only then would it become law.
This would not be the case with the passage of Proposal B. It being what is termed a “Legislative Initiative” its provisions would have immediately become law without any hearings and refinement process.
The voters of Michigan were wary, and rightfully so, even though the vast bulk of them did not know the existence of the 20,000 word bill. The Proposal’s proponents made a tactical error in not making that document easily available for Michigan’s voters to read, discuss and debate. This fact, plus the provision that the oversight committee be clothed in secrecy made Proposal B’s defeat fairly easy by Michigan’s Pro-Life Coalition, as well as by an alliance of Islamic, Jewish and Christian leaders who arrayed themselves against this proposal. Nowhere in Islamic, Jewish or Christian scriptures can it be found that assisted suicide is held in honor or held up as a moral good. Quite the reverse, it is an act in defiance of God’s sovereignty and dominion over human life.
What causes some concern is the fact that this ballot initiative was defeated more because of Proposal B’s deficient legal technicalities, the secrecy, and the clumsy manner of its presentation by its advocates than because of the electorate’s rejection of assisted suicide on moral grounds or as a public policy value.
The most potent political force behind so much of today’s social upheaval is the notion of individual autonomy. Issues swirling around that idea are right of privacy arguments, freedom of choice demands, libertarianism, autonomism, and all other forms of social legislation and public policy positions that promote the individual over and against the community. It all leads to Nihilism and the curious state in which we presently find the Bishop of Rome defending Reason amongst modern academics who are busily developing a philosophy individualistic relativism along with a nihilism to end all philosophies. What was known as “right reason” in classical liberal education has, by the moderns, been reduced to “one’s individual perspective of reality.”
Classical liberal education taught that individual rights are to found and grounded in belonging to a community of commonly shared and protected rights. The common good protects the individual’s “goods”. We are saved by belonging; we are never saved in our individual autonomies. This is at the core of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Today we have no core.
Individualistic autonomy, as the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly declared, is a notion that cannot be found in our laws. Privacy rights are not absolute. What you regard as your absolute right may tread upon and abuse what I regard to be my privacy and my rights, as well as attack the common good we share as together as humans. Your rights are limited, and my rights are likewise limited. That is the price we pay for living in an ordered society. We fought a Civil War over that issue, believing that the lives of Blacks were of greater value than the privacy rights their owners claimed over them as slaves, along with their belief that they had absolute dominion over the lives of their Black slaves. In order to protect human life, there are some choices we ought not have.
During the debates here in Michigan additional arguments were made against Proposal B along the “slippery slope” line of reasoning. Pro-life forces reminded Michigan voters of the arguments pro-abortion forces first made a generation ago. We were told back then that legalized abortion was needed for “a few rare cases” in which poor women who had been victimized by rape and incest and who therefore should have legal access to abortion. The additional argument was made that they had a constitutionally protected unlimited “right of privacy” that government could not take from them. Never recognizing that privacy rights that were unlimited, the U. S. Supreme Court, even in the infamous Roe v. Wade decision, upheld the state’s obligation to preserve, protect and defend human life, declaring that the state had a “compelling interest in protecting human life” (if only in the third trimester of pregnancy).
Today, however, we find legal debates over whether or not abortion should be available “on demand”. We even find litigated questions over whether a baby four-fifths out of the birth canal can have its life “terminated” by the woman birthing it. In politically correct circles it is now impermissible to speak of the fetus as having a “mother”. How can a woman be called a “mother” of what is legally regarded as mere human protoplasm? “Mother” is a term applied to a human baby, not to a blob of human tissue that is not legally constituted as a human person.
Of such stuff are slippery slopes made, and it does not stretch our minds at all to foresee that what is advocated today for “a few” pathetic instances of human suffering crying out for doctor prescribed medications called “Death” will eventually slip down into demands for suicide on demand. The strategy is to make what is permissible become that which can later be demanded.
Whose demand? That also was a part of the debate here in Michigan. The assumption is, of course, that the one wishing to die is the person making the demand. It soon, however, became apparent to Michigan voters that others could well “suggest” that the old, the debilitated, the permanently handicapped, the chronically ill, and even the chronically emotionally depressed should see it to be their duty and “step aside” so that our limited resources could be better devoted to the development of the young. Since we are not limitless when it comes to money and health care facilities, as the health management organizations keep reminding us, how much of our limited resources should be devoted to the support of the chronically ill, depressed and dependent? The idea will come to the elderly (and be made perfectly clear to them!) that they are using up and exhausting both their family’s and society’s resources and energies, along with the “hint” that maybe assisted suicide would be economically beneficial to all concerned. How long would it be before HMO’s fully fund assisted suicide services while cutting back on what’s spent for long term chronic care? Money, as always, becomes the ultimate argument, with the consequent question arising: Just how “free” is the choice to have a doctor assisted suicide?
Much to my regret, because of all of the silliness found in present-day assertions that there is a “Wall of Separation Between Church and State”, Christians in Michigan found themselves presenting muted arguments about the sanctity of human life, God’s gift and providential dominion over human life, and the sinful disorder of doctor assisted suicide. Of all my concerns about the way in which Michigan’s Proposal B was defeated, this is my chief concern. Our highest and best pro-life arguments, the arguments found on high moral ground, were muted by those who whined and complained that the Church was violating America’s mythic dogma separating Church and State.
The complaint is, of course, nonsense. The IRS nevertheless remains poised and ready, along with the U.S. Attorney General, to wag the government’s finger at us, causing diocesan attorneys to get on their red phones to their bishops telling them to keep their priests quiet and not to mix politics with religion. What utter capitulation! Rights, we must remember, are buried when they are not exercised. Use ‘em or lose ‘em is applicable street wisdom.
Of course we all recognize and affirm what the First Amendment tells us, namely that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But to deduce from that that priests cannot talk about the morality of public policy is to violate the constitutional right declared in last clause of the First Amendment. Church may be separated from State, but religion cannot be divorced from society and religious thought cannot be banned from public discussion! The silliest of today’s secularists, however, assert that. Shame on us for buying into it!
The doctor assisted suicide aspect of today’s advocacy of the Dogma of Individual Autonomy will surface in near future ballot proposals that will be presented in other States, California being the next most likely battleground. And while we here in Michigan can have positive (and some have euphoric) feelings about the defeat of our own Proposal B, we need to more soberly reflect on the fact that in the process we surfaced the pro-life arguments that the pro-choice forces now know they’ll have to defeat in other ballot proposal debates. And the pro-choice forces will have also learned other lessons when it comes to drafting specific legislation for subsequent ballot initiatives. In all likelihood they will jettison anything to do with “secret oversight committees” and will keep their proposals and legislative initiatives simple, generic, and easily understood. This will result in an indirect benefit for us. It will cause the arguments both “pro” and “con” to move to high moral grounds, where such public policies should be debated in the first place.
In 1776 we grounded our independence on the conviction that our rights are endowed upon us by our Sovereign Creator. We declared our independence from the British Monarch and built our society of ordered liberties on the self-evident truth that human life is unalienable, coming to us as it does from our Creator, not from monarch or president, not from some congress or legislature, not from Supreme Court or legal principle. Nor should we now ground the value of human life on opinion polls, or on referenda votes. Is human life to be guaranteed only by politics? That is the question Proposal B placed before us.
We must remember that when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian Czar the first thing they had to do was to eliminate the Russian Orthodox Church. The Communists who followed the Bolsheviks likewise had to keep the Russian Church in the closet in order to inflict their terrible and dehumanizing dogmas on the Russian people. All tyrants must begin by declaring God to be dead and then claim Man’s dominion and control over human life. Adolph Hitler knew that quite well, which explains why his Triumph of Darkness began with mercy killing. Once Hitler had moved mercy killing up from merely being a legal theory to the level of public policy then all he had to do was extend his domination over life. It later mutated into becoming his infamous Final Solution. What I am pointing out to you is that the forces of Darkness and Chaos always present themselves to us as solutions to problems. Then they initiate their encroachments by claiming authority over human life, a claim the British Sovereign exerted over us, a claim which we rejected in our Declaration of Independence by grounding human life in God’s endowment, not the government’s.
God’s bestowal of life upon us is His gift to us — and we should not snuff it out. For life is God’s gift to us, and what we do with our lives is our gift to God. Destroying it dishonors both God as well as His gift of life to us.
Death is not a problem to be solved, it is a mystery to be entered into, just as life is not a problem to be solved, but is rather a mystery to be lived. For us as Christians the highest act of faith is to enter into death in the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus Christ. It is the supreme act of worship in which we surrender control and our lust for domination over life and give it, in Christ’s, to our Father in a final, total and supreme act of faith and hope and love.