While the nation watched the shocking rise of Donald Trump in the Electoral College, much less notice was paid to the passage of a referendum in Colorado. Proposition 106 legalized a terminally ill patient to request from a doctor drugs to end his or her life. Colorado became the sixth state to legalize euthanasia, sparking what could quickly become a national trend.
The measure was controversial, to the point that the Denver Post turned away from its general support of assisted suicide legalization to specifically oppose Prop 106. The measure, in the Editorial Board’s eyes, lacked oversight and “would entice insurers to drop expensive treatments for terminal patients even when medical advances might add months or years more to a life that a patient may wish to take.” The editorial also noted that it would be the doctor that administered the drug who would provide counseling on the decision, which is an extreme conflict of interest. Concerned that the public would not know how the proposition was overseen, and that the law would be abused, this major paper urged voters to vote against 106. Yet it passed with ease.
Last month, an even more troubling vote occurred on the other side of the country. “Death with Dignity” advocates pushed the Washington, DC City Council to consider an assisted suicide legalization bill. The selection of DC as a location to push the legislation was not a coincidence, as advocates noted that DC’s demographics were vastly different than the states where assisted suicide was legal. That is, DC has a major African-American and Latino population, and they did not want the issue to be seen as a white upper class issue.
Euthanasia is always included in the list of non-negotiable issues for a Catholic conscience, usually mentioned in the same breath as abortion. However, assisted suicide lacks nationwide statutory guidance, and until recently, few states had rules on the books permitting the practice. Thus while it always has been a line drawn in the culture war sand, that stance has not been tested for many of us Catholics.
Yet as the practice gains acceptance, it is our fellows Catholics who, again, check their own religious views at the door so as to not impede people from practicing theirs. Jerry Brown, former altar server and lifelong Catholic, signed the California euthanasia legislation when a veto would have stopped it in its tracks. And while the total number of people who participate in assisted suicide annually pales in comparison to the number of aborted children, there are two factors that should trouble anyone who considers how far this movement could spread.
The first is the popularity of assisted suicide, or rather the general permissive attitude towards it. Polling on the acceptance of this issue does not mirror that of abortion, which has consistent support/opposition numbers regardless of the generation polled. Rather, polls show that acceptance of assisted suicide mirrors that of gay marriage, which means the issue is becoming even more accepted as the years pass. A 2015 Gallup poll showed that 68% of people approved of allowing a doctor to help a patient end their life, an increase of 16% in twenty years. Among adults aged 18 to 34, that number is 81%. Pro-life advocates are comforted by the fact that our generation is just as anti-abortion as the previous ones, if not more so. Assisted suicide opponents cannot say the same.
The second factor is how easy it is for the category of patients eligible for assisted suicide to expand. In Belgium, an early adopter of legalized euthanasia, doctors for the first time euthanized an underage minor in September. The child reportedly gave consent and was suffering from a terminal disease, but the country had prohibited the mercy killing of minors until two years ago. In fact, the category of who is eligible for assisted suicide grows, with proponents using the argument that they are unable or cannot ethically deny people the right to end their lives simply because they fall into a certain category. The Colorado referendum, allegedly modeled after Oregon’s legislation, actually removed some of the reporting and counseling requirements. The infamous “slippery slope” argument fits quite adequately in the assisted suicide debate.
While abortion will remain a passionate debate for years, the structure of the debate was set in place by the generation who witnessed and grew up in the wake of Roe v. Wade set the tone for the reaction afterward. For Millennials, assisted suicide is the tough moral debate for our generation. While no one wants to witness another person suffer, or force someone else to watch a loved one experience seemingly needless pain, the consequences of legalized assisted suicide are frightening and an anathema to everything the Church values. Rather than strive to provide comfortable, dignified options to help people through a terminal illness, insurance companies and medical practitioners could push patients to the quicker and cheaper assisted suicide route. For the poor who don’t want to burden their family with medical bills, assisted suicide may seem like a compassionate solution, even if the rich would feel no similar pressure. The definitions of terminal, pain, and consent quickly expand and can fit a wide range of categories, encompassing any inconvenient ailment that is easier to solve with a lethal dose of a prescription.
As a Democrat, the idea that my party could embrace this position after it has already embraced abortion on demand is terrifying. For a party searching for popular policy positions to trumpet, and already comfortable with the idea of “the right to”, November 8, 2016 could one day be the date when assisted suicide reached a turning point in U.S. policy. With slowly building momentum and silent popular support, Colorado this week became another battleground in the next big fight over human life and dignity.
Robert Hay, Jr. (@roberthayjr) is a writer based in Alexandria, VA.