A tremendous comeback and victory for life (11.16.12)

I’ve been a sports fan all my life and have witnessed some amazing comebacks, but few compare to the incredible recovery that was made with regard to Ballot Item 2, which was trying to make it legal for doctors in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to prescribe poison for those with terminal diagnoses to kill themselves.

At the end of September, a Boston Globe statewide poll showed 68 percent of likely voters were planning to vote yes on Question 2, compared to 19 percent opposed. Over the course of the next month, not only was the gap closed but on election day, 51.1 percent voted to defeat it.

Much of that credit goes to the Catholic Church, particularly the Archdiocese of Boston, which raised most of the $4 million that was required for the campaign against Question 2 and was the fulcrum of a coordinated effort bringing together doctors and nurses, disability advocates, leaders of religious groups and other groups.

But much of the credit for the victory also goes to the voters in the Diocese of Fall River.

Across the cities and towns of our diocese, 53.8 percent of voters rejected doctor-prescribed suicide. If you look at the western side of the bridges, from Attleboro through Wareham, Question 2 was rejected by 57.0 percent of the electorate. Even though the number of votes cast across the non-Cape part of the diocese comprised only 4.2 percent of the overall votes cast statewide (124,922 out of 2,970,326), it constituted 48.6 percent of the margin of victory (30,517 out of 62,842). 

And when you look at the cities and towns across the Commonwealth that were most against Question 2, many come from our diocese: Acushnet (63.3 percent against), Fall River (63.1), New Bedford (62.5), Taunton (59.0), Somerset (58.7), Swansea (56.7), Raynham (56.4), Dighton (56.1) and Dartmouth (55.6). North Attleboro, Fairhaven, Attleboro, Yarmouth, Freetown, Mashpee, Wareham, Sandwich, Westport, Dennis, Seekonk, Mansfield, Rehoboth, Barnstable and Bourne all not only defeated it, but defeated beyond the statewide average of 51.1 percent opposed.

This testifies to the efforts made throughout our diocese to get the word out, from Bishop Coleman’s excellent audio message the weekend previous to the election, to the yard signs, bumper stickers, educational materials and most importantly personal witness that helped citizens recognize what was at stake and got them motivated to defeat this attempt to pretend that suicide is somehow “dignified” rather than unmistakably tragic.

On a frigid election day, with several dedicated lay people, I held signs for almost three hours on an Eastern Avenue median in Fall River, just outside one of the polling places. I got an inkling that things were going to go very well in our area. There were a handful of passersby who screamed insults as they passed by in their cars, but there was an enormous outpouring of support from people heading in both directions: many encouragingly tooted their horns, gave the thumbs-up sign, waved enthusiastically, and even stopped in traffic — somewhat dangerously — to say how happy they were to see the Church’s leadership on this ballot item.

What happened in Massachusetts was a shot heard round the country on election day. Few believed that Massachusetts would defeat this perversion of mercy and the medical profession, especially after the polls predicting a blow-out in favor. There are, therefore, many lessons to be drawn from the victory, and not just with regard to physician-assisted suicide.

First, society is not on an inexorable decline to the culture of death. Sometimes Christians and Pro-Lifers can become cynical because there hasn’t been a lot to cheer about in recent times, but we should never lose hope. When people know what’s at stake, when we’re able to inform their consciences properly and effectively, we’ve just seen that people can respond well. 

Second, the winning frame was not a moralistic one — “suicide is wrong” — but one drenched in true compassion for those who are suffering and might be tempted to end their lives. The message was that suicide is a tragedy for those who think it’s the only response to a depression caused by a terminal diagnosis, a tragedy for their family members and friends (as suicide always is!), and a tragedy for a society. We focused on the fact that there were better alternatives, like palliative care to handle the pain, psychological care to treat the depression, and simple human loving accompaniment so that one doesn’t have to suffer alone. We were able to show that life is worth living, even when one has a terminal diagnosis, as Victoria Reggie Kennedy’s moving op-ed about the last 15 months of Senator Edward Kennedy’s life gave powerful witness.

The Pro-Life movement in particular has a lot to learn from this. Just as suicide is always a tragedy, we need to convey how and why abortion is likewise always a tragedy, for the child, for his or her mother, father, other family members and all of society. We should emphasize that there are better alternatives than abortion to address the multiple reasons why a woman in a difficult pregnancy might look at abortion as the only way out. In an emotivist age, we should give greater voice to those women who have made the choice for life under difficult circumstances and how they’re so grateful they did. We should enhance and publicize even more the pre- and post-natal equivalent of palliative and Hospice care: the incredible work done by crisis pregnancy centers to help pregnant women in need as well as those who have chosen to keep their babies. Too often abortion is presented moralistically as an “issue,” rather than a tragedy impacting people in distress whom we with compassion want to sacrifice to help for the long-haul. The defeat of Question 2 is a positive wake-up call for the whole movement that when faced with an alternative between lethally unbridled autonomy and genuine compassion, the latter can win.

Third, the Church in this effort, while praying as purely as doves, was as wise as serpents. We convened focus groups and did in-depth studies. We put together an action plan to persuade secular voters and even those in favor of physician-assisted suicide why they should oppose Question 2. We formulated ads like the brilliant “pharmacist” commercial to show people that suicide by Seconal is never a dignified way to die. Jesus called His followers to be shrewd in dealing with the things of this world (Lk 16:8) and in this case the Church was.

Finally, we need to grasp why we were trailing 68-19 percent a month from the election and never make the same mistake again. Polls at the beginning of the year showed us trailing 43-37 percent. At the terrible advice of the political consultants advising the Church, however, we basically suspended all educational efforts until after Labor Day and even pulled superb educational materials from the Internet. The other side was able to advance its arguments when our side muted itself voluntarily. Few knew what was even on the ballot, not to mention why Question 2 should be defeated. Thanks be to God, we had just enough time to triumph at the end, but we should never have been down as much as we were. The Church’s educational efforts should be ongoing and never muzzled. And they should continue now all the more, because what we’ve just won is but one important victory in a much larger war in defense of human dignity.

Buoyed by this victory, we move on to the next battle!

Father Landry is Pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River.

© 2013 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing, Fall River, MassACHUSETTS