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A Look Back at 50 Years: 1998 and the defeat of a referendum to legalize doctor-prescribed death in Michigan

by | Dec 15, 2017

Editor’s note. This comes from Right to Life of Michigan, NRLC’s state affiliate. RTL of Michigan has run a monthly series looking back at historically significant prolife moments in the state’s history. This is the seventh and final entry.

The question of where you go when you die is ages old. In the 1990s, euthanasia and doctor-prescribed suicide advocates thought they had come up with the answer: Michigan.

That was the basic premise of a TV ad featuring the white Michigan-shaped headstone you see in the picture above, with Michigan Lt. Governor Connie Binsfeld standing behind the podium.

The drive to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide in America saw its first legislative victory in Oregon in 1994. The debate over the issue, however, was centered in Michigan, with Jack Kevorkian acting as the most visible face of the movement. On June 4, 1990, Kevorkian “helped” 54-year-old Janet Adkins commit suicide in a van by lethal injection, thus beginning a clash of epic proportions.

Who was Jack Kevorkian? Hollywood may sing his praises by casting Al Pacino to play him in a sympathetic biopic, but the real Kevorkian can only be described as Doctor Death. A pathologist by training, Kevorkian was obsessed with death. As early as 1959, Kevorkian was proposing experiments on condemned prisoners. He said the ultimate goal of his suicide advocacy was human vivisection: performing experiments on live people.

Kevorkian’s work was as sick as his goals. He would take pictures of the eyes of dying patients, hoping to capture the precise moment of their death. He would transplant the blood of corpses into himself. He created artwork of ahighly disturbing nature depicting death, giving you a view into his twisted mind. Patient autonomy was not Kevorkian’s crusade; his was death itself.

Kevorkian’s killings set off a flurry of seemingly unreal activity. How was Michigan going to deal with it? Were our laws sufficient? Should they be changed? Should Kevorkian be embraced?

For 9 years the Michigan Legislature, courts, and local law enforcement were embroiled in a struggle. Much like today’s new cycle, it seemed every day brought a new revelation, political maneuver, or Kevorkian killing. At one point Kevorkian held a press conference offering a dead man’s kidneys, first come, first served.

The conflict eventually came to a head. In 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Vacco v. Quill that there was no Constitutional right to assisted suicide. The Michigan Legislature began efforts to clarify Michigan’s law and permanently ban assisted suicide.

Kevorkian supporters formed a group called Merian’s Friends and began collecting signatures to put a referendum on the 1998 ballot to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide in Michigan. Kevorkian’s lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, began making plans to announce a run for governor against Michigan’s prolife governor John Engler.

Merian’s Friends quickly found that unlike Right to Life of Michigan, there was not a lot of grassroots advocacy for doctor-prescribed suicide. They quickly had to give up efforts to gather petition signatures with volunteers and relied on paid signature gatherers. Eventually they gained enough signatures. Though there were numerous fraudulent signatures gathered, the Michigan Board of Canvassers allowed the ballot proposal to go forward, titling it Proposal B.

1998 would be the stage for this epic clash. Media darling Jack Kevorkian vs. Citizens for Compassionate Care (CCC), a coalition including Right to Life of Michigan to oppose legalizing doctor-prescribed suicide. Kevorkian’s lawyer versus Michigan’s governor. Everyone was all-in and the people of Michigan would make a decisive decision in November.

The polls at first looked troubling for prolife advocates. The misguided compassion of Michigan voters appeared to give Merian’s Friends’ “Proposal B” the upper hand. That’s when prolifers went to work educating the public about what doctor-prescribed suicide would really mean for Michigan. The campaign was a combined effort marrying high-impact advertising with local grassroots engagement.

The day after the November election, the Detroit Free Press’ top story read, “Engler crushes Fieger; suicide law trounced.” Governor John Engler had easily defeated Kevorkian’s lawyer with 62 percent of the vote.

The campaign against Proposal B was absolutely stunning. In the summer it looked like Proposal B might cruise to victory. After only seven weeks of educating the public, Michigan voters rejected Proposal B by a vote of 71 percent to 29 percent. The effect of the defeat was so stunning that euthanasia advocates were silent for nearly 20 years in Michigan.

Jack Kevorkian’s morbid fantasies were dashed on the rocks of the Michigan people. Just a few weeks after the election CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a disturbing tape of Kevorkian euthanizing Thomas Youk by lethal injection. A Michigan jury would eventually find Kevorkian guilty of second-degree murder and forever end the career of Dr. Death.

1998 showed the power of the prolife message and grassroots advocacy paid off once again. Though doctor-prescribed suicide cloaks itself in the language of compassion and patient’s autonomy, the troubling questions it creates are impossible to ignore. It causes our compassion for the sick and disabled to decline. It erodes patient autonomy as cost concerns become more important that caring for patients’ needs. It sacrifices the already low trust the public has in our medical systems. Right to Life of Michigan will continue to educate people about these dangers of embracing suicide instead of patients.

The prolife movement will face many challenges in the future, but we’ll continue to be a shining beacon for the value of every human life, and persevere through whatever obstacles come our way. Many who began this struggle are no longer with us here today, but your efforts today honor the ideals for which they sacrificed to achieve throughout these last 50 years. Thank you for remembering them throughout this series!

Categories: Assisted Suicide