Mass. assisted suicide hearing: a few notes

H1991 sticker[Edited to add news coverage links]

“Got Second Thoughts?” Those simple black & white lapel stickers were a welcome sight as I found my way with hundreds of other people to the Massachusetts Legislative hearing on assisted suicide earlier this week. A little later, someone handed me a sticker with “1991” – the bill number – with a slash through it. I was pleased to wear both.

Also on display, albeit not on me, were colorful stickers with the Compassion and Choices logo: “my life, my death, my dignity.” (“Compassion and Choices”: thereby hangs a tale.)

What I saw and heard on Beacon Hill this week is very similar to what I’ve heard at other hearings in Concord and Hartford over the past year or two. What startled me, and made me very glad I showed up to resist H. 1991, was the intensity and optimism of assisted suicide advocates who are not taking the concerns of disability-rights activists seriously.

Nancy Elliott, awaiting hearing on MA assisted suicide bill.
Nancy Elliott, awaiting hearing on MA assisted suicide bill.

Nancy Elliott said it well. A former New Hampshire state representative who now works against euthanasia and assisted-suicide initiatives, she counseled some opponents of the bill just before the hearing: “You have to work ten times harder than you think you do” in opposing assisted suicide. “This is never finished.”

I was present for only the first couple of hours of the hearing, which was scheduled to go on for at least two hours after that. I offer here some of my impressions. This is an incomplete account; I’m leaving out too many names and too many good points that were made – the risk of elder abuse, the discrimination caused by the better-dead-than-disabled mentality, the fallacy of thinking that a decision to die affects only the person making it. Every speaker I heard lent force to Nancy’s warning that this is never finished.

(More from opponents of the bill: Written testimony by Attorney Margaret Dore of Choice is an Illusion; statement from Massachusetts Medical Society; New Boston Post coverage of the hearing; video of JJ Hanson of the Patients Rights Council; John Kelly and Brian Shea quoted in MassLive.com; Cathy Ludlum and Stephen Mendelsohn on WCVB-TV, Boston; Hartford Courant)

It helps to know the right people: as in my home state, legislators in Massachusetts are accorded the privilege of testifying first on bills, ahead of members of the general public. Some of the legislators brought members of the public to testify alongside them – a handy way to jump the queue.

When is suicide not suicide? One of the first people to testify – I failed to note if he was one of the sponsors – asserted that using the word “suicide” to describe self-administered death is a religious concept, and therefore the word “suicide” doesn’t belong in legislation. (“Aid in dying” was the preferred term used by the bill’s sponsors.) Nicole Stacy of the Family Institute of Connecticut countered this a few minutes later by saying, “My own definition of suicide comes from a standard dictionary, not the Bible.”

More of the same: three women testified as representatives of the National Association of Social Workers, all in favor of H. 1991, although they vigorously rejected the term “assisted suicide.” The principal spokeswoman stressed that in the view of NASW, “This is not euthanasia. This is not suicide.” She said that when the organization’s board took a vote on what position to take on this issue, “the right to self-determination outweighed all other arguments.”

Social workers approve of informed consent except when they don’t: When one of the women speaking on behalf of NASW mentioned that self-determination at end-of-life was comparable to self-determination in women’s reproductive health, a member of the committee spoke up. First, he read aloud the informed-decision language in H. 1991. You’re OK with that? The NASW rep said yes. So, continued the rep, how about putting that kind of language into effect for abortion? No, no, no, was the reply. “That wouldn’t be appropriate. It [presumably, the right to abort] is the law of the land.” There was no time for the follow-up I wanted the rep to ask: So what will happen to informed consent once so-called “aid in dying” is the law of the land?

Mixed message: Senator Denise Provost spoke briefly but forcefully. “State sanctioned assisted suicide is not a path this Commonwealth should go down.” She then asked her colleagues to consider the inconsistency of working to eliminate suicide among young people while encouraging suicide for other populations.

“Terminal”: H. 1991, as with most assisted-suicide legislation, is supposedly only for people who are “terminally ill.”  “Does anyone in this room believe doctors are infallible?” asked John Kelly of Second Thoughts Massachusetts. (See his testimony on New Hampshire’s 2014 assisted suicide bill for more about how Second Thoughts got its name: “the more people learn about assisted suicide, the more they oppose it.”) He noted that thousands of Americans every year outlive “terminal” diagnoses. One of them is JJ Hanson of the Patients Rights Action Fund, who testified after Kelly. Hanson is surviving glioblastoma (the same kind of brain cancer that killed Maggie Karner and that prompted Brittany Maynard to commit suicide) after receiving a “terminal” diagnosis. “I fortunately did not listen to my doctors.” He acknowledged that it hasn’t been easy, with times when he had trouble walking, talking, and even getting out of bed. He said candidly that if a bill like H. 1991 had been in effect during the most severe phase of his illness, he would have asked himself if ending his life would be easier. “I would not be speaking to you today. You can’t go back from that decision [suicide].” He said the Patients Rights Council is “opposed to making suicide the norm for terminally ill patients.”

“This misinformed movement:” Four Worcester County physicians testified as a single panel in opposition to H. 1991. Dr. Paul Carpentier, calling assisted-suicide promotion “this misinformed movement,” said “society should not want doctors to be involved in killing. The principle that physicians should not kill their patients is foundational.” He and his colleagues all warned about allowing the insurance industry to treat prescribed death as a medical treatment. Dr. Laura Lambert said that would create a “death panel in a bottle.” Dr. Mark Rollo: “This bill will put pressure on the vulnerable to choose death.” Dr. William Lawton was the last in the quartet to speak. He said he was speaking for the American College of Physicians in calling H. 1991 “dangerous to doctors and patients. This is not about our patients’ right to die, but about doctors’ right to kill. The safeguards [in the bill] are an illusion.”


NH buses to March for Life: get on board!

From MFL '13: pre-March rally in Washington
From MFL ’13: pre-March rally in Washington

It’s only nine weeks until the 2016 March for Life in Washington, DC. Mark your calendar: Friday, January 22, 2016. Need some information? Need a reason to go? Read on. Seacoast readers, there’s a special message for you below, with my thanks to readers who alerted me.

Bus information, New Hampshire to DC

Planning to take a bus from New Hampshire? Here’s a link from the Diocese of Manchester with information about the Diocese’s bus trip, which they’re calling quite appropriately a Pilgrimage of Faith. Note well: the deadline for putting down a deposit for the trip is coming up very soon: October 31If you are Catholic, check with your local parish as well; there might be a parish liaison for you. The cost is very reasonable; don’t assume it’s out of reach for you until you read the information at the link above.

This is an overnight trip, leaving January 21 and returning to New Hampshire very early on the 23rd.

If you know about other pro-life groups (faith-based or not!) arranging transportation for the March, please let me know and I’ll be happy to spread the word. Leave a comment on this post or email me at ellen@leavenfortheloaf.com.

Seacoast readers, this one’s for you!

If you live on the New Hampshire Seacoast, be aware that if at least twenty people sign up, there will be a bus traveling to DC from Our Lady of the Holy Rosary church in Rochester. The same October 31 deadline for a deposit applies. Contact Nancy Sirois ASAP at numbers6v22@yahoo.com. Twenty should be a cinch – but you have to sign up now!

True enough.
True enough.

Why go to the March?

  • Encouragement, for yourself and others. The first time you go, you’ll be bowled over by the sheer number of high school and college students. This is a pro-life generation. Your very presence will make for a larger crowd, which DC politicians can’t help but notice regardless of whether or not news coverage is adequate. Even in the worst weather – in 1987 there was a Northeastern snowstorm so bad that many buses turned back – 10,000 people showed up. In better weather, the crowd numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
  • Communicate with others back home and across the Internet by posting your own photos and impressions. Since the first March in January 1974, coverage by most major networks has been spotty and brief. EWTN, a Catholic cable network, broadcasts the March from start to finish every year, but not everyone has access to cable or chooses to watch Catholic programming. Your Facebook posts, tweets and photos of the March help push the event to the attention of people all over the country.
  • Visit your federal representatives’ offices in person the day of the March. Let them know why you’re there and that you expect support for the right to life – a human right that’s inherent, not subject to being “wanted.” Oddly enough, a number of pro-abortion Senators and Members of Congress are unavailable that day. Their offices are open nonetheless and staffers are there to receive you.
  • Gain a greater understanding of the amazing breadth of the pro-life movement. Sometimes we can be in a bubble without realizing it. Many religious organizations work to get people to the March, but a pre-March stroll around the National Mall will bring you in touch with Secular Pro-Life, Feminists for Life, the Prolife Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, and pro-life groups from colleges you might not expect, to name just a few. The only thing that’s necessary is a commitment to peaceful action to defend the right to life of preborn human beings.
  • Be inspired to bring new initiatives to your pro-life work back home and to improve on existing work. The March for Life organization has a pro-life expo at a nearby hotel, and other pro-life groups may have conferences or information sessions within a day or two of the March.

Things to know before you go

I’ve only been to a handful of Marches for Life in DC, and I defer to anyone more experienced with the event who has other must-know information.

  • You have travel options, depending on your budget and your location. For those of us living in the Northeast Corridor, flights to Washington are plentiful, and they can be cheap depending on how far in advance you purchase tickets. I once did this as a one-day trip, taking off from home at 6 a.m. and returning in the evening. Amtrak has an overnight train between Boston and Washington, with relatively low fares if tickets are purchased far enough in advance. Buses, especially for organized trips that include accommodations at discounted rates, are very economical.
  • Driving in Washington is not for the faint of heart, particularly for an event of this magnitude. If you drive, stay outside the city (where accommodations are much more affordable in any case) and use the Metro system.
  • Dress warmly. Wear layers. Gloves and hats are essential. There will be a lot of standing around. There is a pre-March rally, and then it takes time for 100,000 people to move along the March route. Bear all this in mind, especially if you’re traveling with kids. Watch the weather forecast before the March, of course, but expect cold weather. Blame the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and his colleagues for announcing the Roe v. Wade decision on a January day.
  • Wear comfortable shoes. If your boots pinch, you’ll never last the day.
  • Carry snacks.
  • Consult the March for Life web site for a trip planner and a lot of helpful information.
  • Look at the banners of various groups all around you, and don’t be afraid to go say hello and meet new people.

Can’t go to Washington? Come to Concord

New Hampshire’s own March for Life is held in Concord the Saturday before the national March, so the next one will be January 16. More about that as the date approaches.


 

 

 

Affirming nonviolence, then and now

Kneeling Ministers, in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park, a civil rights memorial. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Kneeling Ministers, in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, a civil rights memorial. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1963, a few months before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, he and many other civil rights activists converged on Birmingham, Alabama to challenge racial segregation. Their campaign was marked by intensive planning and discipline, because the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was intent not only on a message but on delivering it the right way. Volunteers for the Birmingham campaign were screened and trained, as King recounted in Why We Can’t Wait. He noted, “Every volunteer was required to sign a Commitment Card.”

To what did the Birmingham activists commit?

I hereby pledge myself – my person and body – to the nonviolent movement. Therefore I will keep the following ten commandments:

  1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
  2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory.
  3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
  4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
  5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
  6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
  8. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
  9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain of the demonstration

King added, “We made it clear that we would not send anyone out to demonstrate who had not convinced himself and us that he could accept and endure violence without retaliating” during the campaign. That took guts. It meant putting aside the natural right of self-defense during the demonstration, even as they faced people who had no qualms about using violence, including bombs.

True, Anyone could sign a piece of paper (or in this age, click on “I agree”). So why bother? Because, then and now, nonviolence during a public demonstration isn’t something to take for granted. Public affirmation reinforces personal commitment. Public affirmation is part of accountability to the larger community. It draws a clear line between those protesting peacefully and those willing to resort to violence to impede them.

Today, 40 Days for Life campaigns challenge abortion and affirm the right to life. The founders of 40DFL are Christian, and the program is grounded in Christian spirituality and a commitment to nonviolence. One requirement for participants is signing the 40DFL statement of peace. Without that commitment, one is not a participant, even if standing on the sidewalk outside an abortion facility during a 40 DFL campaign. Here it is.

I testify to the following:

  • I will only pursue peaceful solutions to the violence of abortion when volunteering with the 40 Days for Life campaign
  • I will show compassion and reflect Christ’s love to all abortion facility or Planned Parenthood employees, volunteers, and customers
  • I understand that acting in a violent or harmful manner immediately and completely disassociates me from the 40 Days for Life campaign
  • I am in no way associated with Planned Parenthood, its affiliates or any abortion provider

While standing in the public right-of-way in front of the abortion facility or Planned Parenthood location:

  • I will not obstruct the driveways or sidewalk while standing in the public right of way
  • I will not litter on the public right-of-way
  • I will closely attend to any children I bring to the prayer vigil
  • I will not threaten, physically contact, or verbally abuse abortion facility or Planned Parenthood employees, volunteers or customers
  • I will not damage private property
  • I will cooperate with local authorities

As I sign on once again for 40DFL – for the Statement of Peace must be reaffirmed with each new campaign – I want to take the Birmingham commitment to heart as well. There are no doubt those who will take umbrage at any suggestion that today’s pro-life movement is part of the civil rights movement that came to flower at that March on Washington in ’63. In reply, I can only avow that life is the fundamental civil and human right. Abortion takes lives, and there are businesses that profit from it. Let peaceful public witness to that continue.

I don’t pretend to have endured the physical abuse to which the Birmingham demonstrators were subjected. Their example is awesome even fifty years on. They faced police dogs and fire hoses, and still made a commitment to nonviolent public witness and action. The best way for me to honor their memory is to emulate them, even though I’ve faced nothing worse so far than name-calling.

Recall that the nonviolent demonstrators in Birmingham were far from passive. There was urgency in their goal of justice and reconciliation. From a 1963 UPI report on the Birmingham demonstrations: “King reacted strongly, however, to a statement by Attorney General Robert Kennedy suggesting that the all-out integration drive here was ill-timed. ‘I grow weary of those who ask us to slow down,’ King told a reporter. ‘I begin to feel that the moderates in America are our worst enemy.'”

The events and words of 1963 aren’t frozen in place, devoid of application to our own times. View them not as an archaeologist views a dig, but as a traveler views a map: take this path, not that one. I could do worse than follow the people who signed those cards in Birmingham.

“Be people of hope”: AUL’s Lamontagne speaks at 40DFL wrap-up

Ovide Lamontagne speaking to Manchester 40DFL volunteers
Ovide Lamontagne speaking to Manchester 40DFL volunteers

Ovide Lamontagne is general counsel of Americans United for Life – except when he’s back home in Manchester, New Hampshire. There, he’s simply Ovide, having made his mark through the years as attorney, candidate, chairman of the state Board of Education, and supporter of numerous nonprofit organizations in the area. He was in town Saturday to address the closing gathering of the season’s 40 Days for Life campaign in Manchester.

“Be people of hope”

“40 Days for Life is founded on hope. Be people of hope,” he began. He recalled the 2012 election, in which he was the Republican gubernatorial candidate in New Hampshire. “People have come up to me over the past two years to say how frustrated they were over what happened in 2012 in that election. How angry and disenfranchised they felt. And I say to them that’s OK. That’s human. I felt frustrated about the way things worked out. But I submit to you we cannot lose hope. We are called to be people of hope and faith and love. Working with 40 Days for Life, we are becoming that.”


He began working for AUL, “the nation’s premier pro-life legal team,”  in 2013. “Thank God for 40 Days for Life. We filed an amicus brief for 40 Days for Life in a case called McCullen v. Coakley” – the Massachusetts buffer zone case, well-known to his listeners, who applauded his reference to the case. “Thank God the Supreme Court made the right decision. We were able to write in our brief what 40 Days for Life does – affirm women and men. Young people are reaching out to women who think they don’t have a choice.”

“It starts in the states”

Ovide outlined the background of AUL’s work and legal strategy. “The U.S.A is one of four countries that allows abortions through nine months of pregnancy.”  He knows that U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen is trying to win re-election by casting herself as more “pro-choice” than her opponent, Scott Brown. Ovide said, “That means [abortion] through all nine months of pregnancy.” The good news: “62% of Americans polled said there should be more restrictions on abortion, and 64% said they support a late-term abortion ban.”

That’s where AUL’s current strategy kicks in. “[A late-term ban] is what we’re trying to encourage Congress to pass, so we can bring some sanity to what is an extreme position in America and in New Hampshire.”

Americans United for Life has made a priority of developing suggested state-level state legislation, known collectively as the Women’s Protection Project. “The pro-life movement needs a mother-child strategy, and that’s what we do at AUL. The reality is there are two victims of abortion, every time: unborn children and women. Abortion harms women. We are better than that.” Abortion-facility regulation, while not yet in place in New Hampshire, has been adopted in some other states, notably Texas. “Pro-abortion forces say aw, come on, [things like] hallway widths are relevant to getting an abortion? Ask the family of Karnamaya Mongar.” Mongar was one of Kermit Gosnell’s victims, who died following a late-term abortion. The Gosnell grand jury report cited narrow hallways in Gosnell’s facility as one factor that delayed emergency responders from being able to evacuate Mrs. Mongar from the building.

“The state has the right to regulate abortion to make it safe for women. You can’t pass a law for the purpose of closing clinics, but know this: this industry is about making money, and they’re not going to raise standards. They’re going to say we have to close our clinics instead. And that’s OK. We can’t do this without you. It starts in the states.”

“The civil rights movement of this generation”

It’s not lost on Ovide that a hallmark of the contemporary pro-life movement is the involvement of youth, whether it be at the national March for Life or the local 40DFL campaign. “Things are happening in the pro-life movement that are very encouraging. People are waking up to what is going on. And it’s the young people who are going to save our country.

“We can’t give up, and have to move when, where and how we can to advance the culture of life in America. We are the civil rights movement of this generation.”

One more day

Jennifer Robidoux, coordinator for this 40 Days for Life campaign, reminded everyone that the campaign’s formal conclusion is Sunday evening. “There’s still a day and a half. Wouldn’t it be great to end this campaign with every hour covered?” She announced that she’s stepping down as coordinator, leaving plenty of time for another volunteer to step forward. “The spring campaign is just around the corner. The rest of the leadership team is ready to get started.”

Ovide (left) with Manchester 40DFL leadership team: Pastor Don Colageo, Geneva Beaudoin, Jennifer Robidoux, Beth Scaer, Joan Silvernail, Maurice Huberdeau
Ovide (left) with Manchester 40DFL leadership team: Pastor Don Colageo, Geneva Beaudoin, Jennifer Robidoux, Beth Scaer, Joan Silvernail, Maurice Huberdeau