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Religious Groups Spend Millions to Kill Suicide Question

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


The Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide spent $2.6 million in the final weeks leading up to Election Day in its efforts to defeat Question 2 on this year's ballot in Massachusetts.

The Prescribing Medication to End Life ballot measure, if approved, would have provided patients with the option of self-administering a prescription that would cause a humane death if they are deemed mentally capable, have been diagnosed with an incurable or irreversible disease that will cause death within six months and who have voluntarily expressed a wish to die.

A Turning Tide

Question 2 was still polling at 56 percent less than a month before Election Day, but when all the ballots were counted, opponents had succeeded in eking out the 51 percent of votes necessary to keep the law off the Commonwealth's books.

"We believe Question 2 was defeated because the voters came to see this as a flawed approach to end of life care, lacking in the most basic safeguards," said Rosanne Bacon Meade, chairperson for the Committee Against Assisted Suicide.

"A broad coalition of medical professionals, religious leaders, elected officials and voters from across the political spectrum made clear that these flaws were too troubling for a question of such consequence. We hope these results mark the beginning of a deliberate and thorough conversation about ways to improve end-of-life care in Massachusetts, which, as the nation's health care capital, is well positioned to take the lead on this issue."

Strong Catholic Financial Backing

While the coalition opposing Question 2 was composed of a broad base, the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide received a substantial majority of its financial support from religious groups and institutions. The committee raised a total of $4,325,980 in 2012 according to reports filed with the state's Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) through November 1. Catholic groups accounted for roughly $3.3 million of those contributions.

Top donors were St. John's Seminary in Brighton and the Boston Catholic Television Center, which each gave $1 million to the cause, as well as the Knights of Columbus, which contributed $450,000, and the D.C.-based Catholic Association, which contributed $420,000.

In comparison, the two groups supporting the Prescribing Medication to End Life law, Dignity 2012 and MA Compassion & Choices, spent a combined $978,089 this year, and Dignity 2012 received $516,461 of in-kind contributions.

With plenty of funds coming in, the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide was able to spend $2.6 million from October 16 through November 1. More than $2 million went toward a radio and television advertising blitz in the final weeks before Massachusetts voters headed to the polls.

"In general, ballot initiatives tend to be won by the side spending the most money," said Robert Boatright, an associate professor of Political Science at Clark University.

"Voters rarely know very much about initiatives, and they generally are suspicious of them because the language (pretty much by necessity) tends to be complex enough that they will vote against them if doubts are raised."

Without the same kind of coordinated campaign on the side of supporters, opponents like the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide were the only voices on the airwaves during the final weeks when voters began tuning in.

Changing the Debate

John Kelly, director of Second Thoughts: People with Disabilities Opposing the Legalization of Assisted Suicide, said the Catholic church was instrumental in getting the opposition to Question 2 to the 51 percent it needed in Election Day. However, the law's opponents also benefited from bringing disability rights activists into the fold alongside Catholic institutions and medical professionals to move the discussion beyond the typical right-vs.-left debate. Kelly likened the effort to the ACLU working with the Catholic church to oppose the death penalty in years past.

"What that caused was a breakdown in that old story of the culture war between religious conservatives and liberals," he said. "We knew that if that was the way it was characterized, we would lose."

Yet the razor-thin margin of victory for opponents of Question 2 indicates that the electorate, as well as portions of the medical community, are still split on the issue of physician-assisted suicide, said Srini Sitaraman, associate professor of Political Science at Clark University.

"The ad blitz surely had an impact in switching the undecided towards a No vote," he said. "But surely this issue is not going to go away and it will pop up again, and I think the 'Death with Dignity' will definitely catch on."


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