The death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, just 10 days after he wrote to the Supreme Court urging it to reject the notion of a "right to die" for terminally ill patients, is personalizing the euthanasia issue.
"The cardinal's own illness and death do serve to add legitimacy to his letter," says Julie Grimstad, founder of the Center for the Rights of the Terminally Ill. "The question is going to be, however, whether the members of the Supreme Court have already made up their minds on the issue."
Cardinal Bernardin, 68, died Nov. 14 of pancreatic and liver cancer. He announced in 1995 that he had the disease, and then revealed last August that it had spread and was inoperable. He stopped taking chemotherapy and concentrated on making his last days count, according to a spokesman. On the afternoon before his death, the cardinal accepted phone calls from Pope John Paul II and President Clinton. Cardinal Bernardin, seen as a moderate who favored "dialogue" with liberal groups within the church and who opposed nuclear weapons and the death penalty, nevertheless always remained solid on the issues of abortion and euthanasia.
"There is much I have contemplated these last few months of my illness," he wrote to the high court. "But as one who is dying, I have especially come to appreciate the gift of life."
The Clinton administration has added its opinion to those opposing a "right to die." In a brief filed by the Justice Department last week, the administration tried to draw a line between rejecting life-prolonging treatment (which the Supreme Court ruled constitutional in 1990) and receiving drugs or treatment to bring on death. Acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, however, gave the Supreme Court a back door when he wrote that people "have a significant liberty interest: avoiding severe pain or suffering," and only countered that states can have a more important interest in preserving the sanctity of life.
That's the sort of weak policy that has CRTI's Mrs. Grimstad a little discouraged. This Texas mother and pro-life activist is scaling back her lobbying efforts and has ceased publishing her newsletter, in favor of spending more time actually helping individual patients.
"The way the culture of death has progressed, I'm not sure there's any stopping it at the policy level," she says. "I've been trying for 10 years. Now, I feel the best thing is to spend time protecting the people who are the most vulnerable to these policies. My new goal is to send an army of volunteers into the nursing homes, to work on the problem at that level. Let's make life livable, let people know they're loved."
The Supreme Court is considering the issue in two cases, laws in New York and Washington state that ban doctors from helping patients die. Lower courts have struck down those laws, and the high court is slated to rule on the issue in July.
In other developments on the issue:
**red_square**Jack Kevorkian has a co-laborer now, it seems. Michigan activist Janet Good, 73, has been charged with assisting the suicide last August of an Iona, Mich., woman who had multiple sclerosis. Loretta Peabody's death was not reported as an assisted suicide when it happened; her doctor listed her cause of death as "natural causes." But when police seized a videotape from Mr. Kevorkian last month, they learned that Mr. Kevorkian and Mrs. Good were present at her death and interviewed her about her wishes not to turn into a "vicious, nasty woman."
Mrs. Good, who co-founded the Michigan chapter of the Hemlock Society in 1989, was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame for her work on calling attention to sexual harassment in the workplace. It's doubtful she'll ever face prosecution for helping others die; she has cancer herself, and the Iona County prosecutor's office seems to be backing away from the politically dicey move of going after a dying grandmother.
**red_square**In Australia, the world's most permissive euthanasia law has been allowed to stand, after that nation's Senate postponed a vote that is expected to overturn it. The law, which took effect July 1, has only been used once officially, according to press reports, though it's likely to give the go-ahead to other assisted suicides. The Australian Medical Association opposes the law, as do the Aborigines. The Aborigines see euthanasia as witchcraft and oppose it on those grounds.
**red_square**In the Netherlands, the number of "involuntary euthanasia" cases continues to rise; it now exceeds 1,000 reported cases. Technically, euthanasia is illegal there, but the courts have issued guidelines allowing it in certain cases. Although both the law and the guidelines forbid killing anyone without their consent, "involuntary euthanasia" is now seen as a viable "treatment" for both terminal and non-terminal illnesses.