Is Assisted Suicide the New Abortion?

Physician-assisted suicide just might be the next hot-button cultural issue—and Democrats and Republicans are deeply split on the question.

02.17.15 10:15 AM ET

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who previously helped lead the Catholic Church’s opposition to the Obamacare birth control mandate, helping the “war on women” moniker live on long after the 2012 election, recently announced a new political foe: physician-assisted suicide. Dolan’s crusade against aid-in-dying legislation in New York, and the battle over similar measures across the country, means Republican presidential contenders could soon find themselves between a rock and an even bigger rock in 2016.

In the first two months of 2015, 10 states have introduced bills that would make it legal for a physician to help a patient end his life. This number does not include legislative measures in other states pending since last year. Though the issue of assisted suicide has been in the public consciousness for at least two decades, the groundswell of new bills is due in large part to one person: Brittany Maynard.

Maynard was in the prime of her life when doctors told her she had six months to live due to glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. She relocated to Oregon, one of four states in which allowing a physician to provide a patient with a prescription to take her own life is legal, which Maynard did in November of last year. Maynard, who was not yet 30 when she died, was not only young; she was also attractive, telegenic, middle class and white. All of these qualities made her an extremely appealing and effective spokesperson for what can be a difficult cause to sell: the right to death. And since her death, the cause has gained momentum at record pace.

“There are no words to express the impact Brittany Maynard has made on this issue,” Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, a leading advocacy group for end-of-life freedom that coordinated with Maynard on an awareness campaign, told The Daily Beast. “I think of her as prophetic in her impact.” Before Maynard, when most people heard the words “assisted suicide” they thought of Dr. Jack Kevorkian—menacingly nicknamed “Dr. Death” in media for his role in helping terminally ill patients end their lives, actions that ultimately landed him in prison. But unlike Kevorkian, who could come across as an unsympathetic zealot at best and a killer with a God complex at worst, Maynard’s story elicited nothing but sympathy.

A year before Maynard’s death, support for physician-assisted suicide was declining. But a Harris poll found that 72 percent of Americans supported assisted suicide following her death, compared to 67 percent in the last poll conducted by Harris on the subject. Additionally, the number of Americans supporting a person’s right to die increased from 70 percent to 74 percent.

Gallup pointed out that wording plays a key role in how polls on this issue shake out. According to Gallup, while 58 percent of Americans support physician-assisted suicide, 69 percent back the right to “end patient’s life by painless means.” But even more noteworthy is that this has not always been the case. According to Gallup, “Only once, in 2001, did ‘commit suicide’ have greater support than ‘painless means,’ 68 percent to 65 percent.” That particular survey was taken shortly after a court in Florida took Terri Schiavo off her feeding tube in a landmark case of physician-assisted suicide.

So what does all of this have to do with the 2016 election? Well, for starters, the most visible political player in the legal and political fight over Schiavo was none other than then-Florida governor and current Republican presidential frontrunner, Jeb Bush. His involvement in the case, in which he signed a bill into law granting him the authority to have a feeding tube restored for a woman in a vegetative state against her husband’s wishes, was highly unusual and remains controversial.

Schiavo’s husband recently began giving interviews denouncing Bush’s fitness for the presidency and demanding an apology for the lengthy legal ordeal Bush put the widower through. (After years of legal wrangling Terri Schiavo died on March 31, 2005.) While Bush was recently quoted as saying “it's appropriate for people to err on the side of life. I'm completely comfortable with it,” the polling indicates his overreach in the Schiavo case may come back to haunt him.

A poll released by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that while Democrats are more likely to favor aid-in-dying legislation, Republicans are divided, with 43 percent supporting and 45 percent disapproving. These numbers indicate that a debate over assisted suicide could not only prove problematic for Bush, but at least one other possible Republican contender, Gov. Chris Christie.

The Fairleigh Dickinson poll was taken in light of pending legislation in New Jersey, where the university is based, that would legalize aid in dying. Previously Christie’s office has said he opposes such legislation. But this was before the legislation began gaining momentum and before he was even closer to facing voters in a presidential campaign.

Cheri Jacobus, a Republican strategist, said in an interview that it is “inconceivable” that a Republican primary candidate would come out in support of assisted suicide. Yet I can’t help wondering how Bush or Christie can convincingly make the case that he is the Republican candidate most viable among general election voters if either comes across as out of touch on an issue that for an increasing number of Americans does not seem on par with the controversy the word “abortion” still seems to generate.

We may not all experience an unplanned pregnancy but all of us will face the prospect of illness or death. As Americans live longer, and more of us witness the slow and often torturous mental and physical decline of loved ones, it is possible the right to death could become a defining political issue.

Speaking on behalf of the disability rights group Not Dead Yet, Diane Coleman expressed concerns that the ill, elderly, and disabled may be vulnerable to coercion through the legalization of aid-in-dying measures. But George Eighmey of the Death with Dignity National Center explained that in countless instances, family members must be convinced by their sick loved one that this is the choice he or she truly wants, not the other way around. And family members are not the only ones who need convincing. Eighmey, a former Oregon legislator, said, “It takes elected officials a bit longer.” But based on his experience, eventually politicians catch up to their constituents. And most of their constituents now support aid in dying.