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Death on life support

National | Well-financed charitable foundations keep the "right-to-die" movement alive and well

Issue: "Passing of a peacemaker," Feb. 20, 1999

Jack Kevorkian goes on trial this spring for murder, but convicting Dr. Death and tossing him into the slammer would only dethrone the physician-assisted suicide movement's clown prince, not derail its efforts. That's the conclusion of a January report by the Capital Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank that tracks the giving of major charitable foundations. The report shows that while Dr. Kevorkian has stamped "right-to-die" activists with the enduring image of a crude contraption that delivers death-inducing chemicals into the veins of the hopeless, this movement stubbornly clings to life with the aid of big bucks from huge non-profit foundations.

According to the New York-based Foundation Center, no grants by foundations focused on end-of-life/"right-to-die" policy in 1990. But by 1995, grant makers like the New-Land Foundation, the Greenwall Foundation, and the New York Community Trust reported shelling out more than $2.1 million earmarked for the promotion of physician-assisted suicide and other euthanasia-related issues. The most recent figures available show death-embracing foundations still pumping cash: In 1997, two organizations alone, the Open Society Institute and the Gerbode Foundation, were the source of nearly $1 million in grants for organizations promoting physician-assisted suicide. Large donors also funnel grants through organizations like the Oakland-based Philanthropic Ventures Foundation (PVF) that are legally able to hide the names of grant recipients from public view. The CRC report said that a number of organizations, including PVF, refused to comment on grants to right-to-die groups, indicating that the amount of cash flowing may be much higher than published figures show.

"As people become more accepting of physician-assisted suicide, there will be a lot more money out there," said Patrick Reilly, editor of Foundation Watch, a CRC publication that documents the activities of non-profit grant-making institutions.

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Such donations exponentially extend the reach and mainstream credibility of organizations like the pro-suicide Hemlock Society-a group that was once considered by most Americans to be on the creepy fringe. For example, it was in part a Gerbode Foundation grant that enabled the Hemlock Society to avert a 1997 voter challenge to Oregon's Death With Dignity Act. That law, which permits physicians to assist the death of competent adults with less than six months to live, is now the legislative battering ram pro-suicide activists are using in their state-by-state assault on all laws preventing self-termination.

In 1998, foundation grants funded the release by Oregon Death With Dignity and the Death With Dignity National Center (San Mateo, Calif.) of a national poll designed to hamstring a congressional vote on the 1998 Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act. The bill, sponsored by Senator Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), and approved by both the House and Senate judiciary committees, would have required the Drug Enforcement Administration to revoke the drug-prescribing privileges of doctors who assist in suicides. According to Mr. Reilly, the poll, which claimed that 80 percent of Americans agreed that Congress should respect the wishes of pro-suicide Oregonian voters, helped kill a congressional floor vote on the Nickles/Hyde bill.

And far from simply fueling high-blown legislative debates, foundation funding is helping pro-death groups cart their assisted-suicide message to those who they hope will do the assisting: doctors. Several foundations fund "education" programs designed to train medical personnel in right-to-die newspeak. And the Gerbode Foundation has footed the bill for symposia designed, in part, to develop ethics guidelines for physician aid in dying-even in states where assisted suicide is illegal.

The collective effect of these national and localized pro-suicide outreach efforts may be somewhat like that of a tiny stream on a giant boulder: erosion, slow but steady. A foundation-funded PBS special called Whose Death Is It Anyway? enjoys regular re-broadcast. Emanations from conservative organizations and medical professionals opposed to physician-assisted suicide seem to reveal waning energy-saying, in effect, "If you can't beat 'em, at least make sure as few people as possible get hurt." Even rank-and-file Americans seem increasingly willing to discuss self- and physician-assisted death.

"My closest friends and I are all reaching the age where our friends and relatives are dying all around us," said Rita Macarbee, a 53-year-old executive secretary in San Diego. "We just want to have control over how we die. We talk about it all the time."

To oppose the assisted-suicide lobby, Mr. Reilly called for "pro-life donors to more aggressively support activists opposing the right-to-die movement. Grassroots efforts in Washington and California have been successful, but we need some high rollers to step up and promote well-coordinated efforts" to defeat the pro-death message.

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