Partisanship and Assisted Suicide: An Examination of State Legislative Votes
Skylar Covich, Ph.D.
Bioethics in Law & Culture
Summer 2019 vol. 2 issue 3
While it is often generalized that the progressive movement favors assisted suicide and the conservative movement opposes assisted suicide, legislative votes on the topic are not party line, even in states where assisted suicide has become legal. This article seeks to determine why some Democratic legislators vote against assisted suicide laws and why a few Republican lawmakers vote to approve assisted suicide. It argues that religion is the most prominent motivator of Democratic opposition to assisted suicide, with Catholic conferences able to lobby even pro-choice lawmakers including even in California where such efforts were not quite enough to block the legalization. Most Republicans who vote for assisted suicide, meanwhile, hold centrist or libertarian views and come from swing districts. By continuing research on cross-party alliances for and against assisted suicide, advocates may better determine appeals to lawmakers across the political spectrum.
Is assisted suicide a partisan issue, with the Democratic Party in favor and the Republican Party against? This paper discusses the complexity of both parties’ attitudes to assisted suicide by examining the extent to which there is a Republican minority in favor of such laws, and a Democratic minority against assisted suicide beyond the increasingly small core of pro-life Democrats. There will be a particular focus on cross-partisan voting in the final passages of assisted suicide laws in California in 2015 and New Jersey in 2019, and a close vote in the Maryland Senate in 2019 where assisted suicide failed. Preliminary research finds that Republicans who vote for assisted suicide are atypical. For Democrats, religion remains a surprisingly important factor in decision making even among generally progressive politicians.
Why is this article needed? It is surprisingly difficult to find analysis on the partisanship of assisted suicide votes. When newspapers cover votes on assisted suicide and the lobbying leading up to such votes, they are more likely to cover the emotional appeals by advocates on either side, or select a few legislators to cover. There is rarely a focus on analyzing the partisan breakdown.
Why would legislators of either party waver on assisted suicide? While both conservative Christian and progressive disability rights groups oppose assisted suicide, such legislation has become popular. A recent Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans support assisted suicide, including super-majorities of Democrats and roughly half of conservatives.[i] Many legislators also may be willing to vote for assisted suicide laws depending on the specific regulations on the table, including requiring more doctors to sign up, higher eligibility requirements or a longer waiting period.
Why would some Republicans favor assisted suicide? The preliminary research in this paper indicates that many Republicans in favor of assisted suicide have libertarian leanings, including a reluctance to legislate against bodily autonomy. This often results in such Republicans being pro-choice or moderate on abortion. Other pro-choice Republicans are fiscally moderate, attempting to hold to a centrist position on most issues and opposition to assisted suicide is seen as extreme. More philosophically, within libertarianism and conservatism there is a tendency of not wanting to be a burden, especially for those on the Right who do not have an understanding that even those suffering are loved by God. For this reason, social conservatives and progressives influenced by Christian or disability rights groups are the legislative burier to assisted suicide laws, rather than more secular conservatives, libertarians or centrists. A final reason for the acquiescence of a few Republicans to assisted suicide is that they represent swing districts where social liberalism may be perceived as a path to reelection.
Why would some Democrats oppose assisted suicide? The preliminary research in this article finds that surprisingly, religion is still the most important reason for progressive opposition to assisted suicide. In California and Maryland, Catholics, African-American Protestants and other Christians who don’t adopt orthodox Christian anti-abortion politics still hold to orthodox Christian positions on the end of life in some cases. Religious faith perhaps leads to differing interpretation of personal experience in some cases. While some Democrats support assisted suicide because of an ill relative, others point to the longer life of an ill relative as a reason to avoid making assisted suicide legal, and many of these also cite religion. More secular Democrats who oppose assisted suicide usually cite medical ethics. Hawaii Senator Harimoto, one of only two Hawaii senators to oppose passage of the state’s assisted suicide law in 2018, combined all three (religious faith, personal experience, and medical ethics) in his statement about his battle with cancer, in which he worried that others like himself would not have the incentive to fight for treatment if assisted suicide were legal, and he added, "My faith in God, prayers and sense of hope got me through this.”[ii] Disability rights is a less common reason for Democrats to oppose assisted suicide, despite significant lobbying by Not Dead Yet and other groups. Not Dead Yet has lobbied in every state (e.g. California)[iii] and New Jersey [iv] In Connecticut, Second Thoughts mobilized disability rights opposition in 2019, resulting in a bill dying in committee despite a Democratic majority. [v]
Five congressional Democrats co-sponsored H. Con. Res. 80 along with 4 Republicans in 2017, which would have established that it is the sense of Congress to keep assisted suicide illegal.[vi] Of these, Dan Lipinski is one of the few pro-life Democrats remaining in Congress. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, who is in a wheelchair, is an activist for disability rights.[vii] Two southern California Catholic Democrats (Lou Corea and Juan Vargas) and Long Island New York congressman Tom Suozzi, were less clear about their personal reasons. It is worth noting that all 5 Democrats are Catholic, and none are from swing districts.
In the California Assembly, 10 Democrats did not vote for the End of Life Option Act in 2015: Cheryl Brown, Mike Gibson, Lorena Gonzalez, Roger Hernandez, Patty Lopez, Patrick O’Donnell, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, Freddy Rodriguez, Miguel Santiago, and Das Williams. In the State Senate, Tony Mendoza, a Democrat, was the only member to cross party lines. Three Assembly Republicans voted for the End of Life Option Act: Catharine Baker, David Hadley, and Brian Maienschein.[viii]
Hispanic lawmakers in particular were influenced by the California Catholic Conference.[ix] Although the Los Angeles Times did not cite specific details on any legislator, it is implied that Gonzalez, Hernandez, Lopez, Rodriguez, and Santiago were likely to have been influenced by Catholic lobbying. Das Williams was among the most politically progressive Democrats to oppose the bill, and braved protests from constituents. He cited his evangelical Christian identity,[x] Williams also cited the experience of a grandfather who remained alive as of 2015 after being given 6 months to live 5 years earlier. Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, meanwhile, cited medical ethics.
On the Republican side, meanwhile, Baker and Maienschein were atypical Republican legislators. They not only voted for the final passage but also voted for the bill in committee.[xi] Both were in urban swing districts with a Democratic trend, and had moderate voting records.[xii] Maienschein even switched to the Democrats in 2019.[xiii] Hadley, too, was representing a swing district and was not always in step with his party. He expressed libertarian leanings, including voting for the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate in 2016 and his advocacy of low taxes, while also breaking from his party on renewable energy; a vote which was mentioned in a later profile of his attempt to run for governor when his break with the Republicans on assisted suicide was not.[xiv]
The following Assembly Democrats Voted against A1504: James Beach, Nilsa Cruz Perez, Fred Madden, Ronald Rice, Paul Sarlo, and Shirley Turner. In the State Senate, the following Democrats voted against the bill; Ralph Caputo, Joseph Egan, Thomas Giblin, Patricia Egan Jones, Robert Karabinchak, Nancy Pinkin, Gary Schaer, and Britnee Timberlake.
Three Democrats and 1 Republican (Kevin Rooney) abstained in the Assembly. Republicans voting for A1504 were Christopher Bateman, Declan O’Scanlon, and Samuel Thompson (all senators).[xv] Despite significant attempts at online research, it has been difficult to find reasons for the votes of these individuals. However, there were a few references to Catholic lobbying of al legislators in New Jersey. [xvi] Now that the list has been compiled from Assembly sources, a future researcher should interview the lawmakers listed.
17 African American Democrats were among Democratic opponents of the Maryland End of Life Options Act in the Assembly. [xvii] Democrat Jay Walker lead opposition from a religious perspective, arguing that he could not vote for lives to end which God had not ended. [xviii] Nine Democrats in the Senate voted against the End of Life Options Act and one abstained, resulting in a failed tie vote. While there was no breakdown of the reason for each Democrat’s vote, there was significant lobbying by the Maryland Catholic Conference in a state where Catholic lobbying remains powerful on all issues involving Catholic social teaching.[xix]
One Republican, Christopher West, co-sponsored the Maryland bill. West, a social moderate and fiscal conservative from a district with a close election, [xx] had gone as far as to sponsor end of life bills previously.
There are several research steps which could be taken to strengthen this initial analysis. It would be instructive to determine whether Democrats who are moderate or progressive on other issues are more likely to oppose the legalization of assisted suicide. The best way to determine this would be to find the votes in each state on which Democrats were most closely divided, and determine whether those opposed to assisted suicide took a similar side on other bills, especially related to health care, the social safety net, and treatment of social conservatives. Similar analysis could be performed on the Republicans, fewer in number, who support assisted suicide laws. For now, Catholic conferences and other religious organizations against assisted suicide should aggressively lobby Democratic lawmakers from their faiths, even when those lawmakers do not adopt their faiths’ social teaching entirely. Those who oppose assisted suicide should, in all possible circumstances, oppose the election of Republicans who are not social conservatives, because such politicians, especially in liberal states, are likely to acquiesce to assisted suicide.
[i] Brenan, Megan (2018, May 31). Americans’ Strong Support of Euthanasia Persists. Gallup.
[ii] McAbvoy, Audrey (2018,August). Physician Assisted Suicide Soon to Become Law in Hawaii. Chicago Tribune.
[iii] Coleman, Diane (2015, September 3). Letter to CA Assembly. Not Dead Yet.
[iv] Many Disability Advocates Blocked from Testifying. Not Dead Yet.
[v] Quinn, Mattie (2019, 29 March. As New Jersey Prepares to Legalize Assisted Suicide, Other Bills Die. Governing.
[vi] Weigel, Gabriela (2017, September 20). Sense of Congress Resolution Shows Bipartisan Agreement against Assisted Suicide. National Right to Life Committee. https://www.nationalrighttolifenews.org/2017/09/sense-of-congress-resolution-shows-bipartisan-agreement-against-assisted-suicide/
[viii] Assembly Bill 15 (2015). California Legislative Info.
[ix] Skelton, George (2015, 15 July. Aid-In-Dying Bill to be Revived. Los Angeles Times.
[x] Welsh, Nick (2015, 23 August). Right to Die Advocates Target Das Williams. The Santa Barbara Independent.
[xi] Grimes, Katie (2015). Suicide Gets a Pass from Republicans. CalCatholic.
VIII Smith, Adam (2018, October). How to Survive as a Bay Area Republican? Act Like a Democrat. San Francisco Chronicle. https://www.sfchronicle.com/politics/article/How-does-a-Bay-Area-Republican-survive-Act-like-13293413.php
[xiii] Assemblyman Brian Maienschein Switches Parties. NBC San Diego
[xiv] Mehta, Sima (2017, July). Former Republican Assemblyman Runs for Governor. Los Angeles Times.
[xv] Assembly 1104 (2019). New Jersey Legislature web database.
[xvii] Wiggins, Ovetta (2019, 10 March). Aid in Dying Bill Clears Maryland House of Delegates. The Washington Post.
[xviii] Wood, Pamela (2019, 7 March). Amid tears, bowed heads, Maryland House of Delegates approves legalizing medically assisted suicide. The Baltimore Sun.
[xix] Gaines, Danielle (2019, 27 March). Aid in Dying Bill Fails in Tie Senate Vote. Maryland Matters.
[xx] Tilghman, Mary (2015, 20 January). Freshman Del. Chris West Takes His Place in General Assembly. The Baltimore Sun.
Skylar Covich, Ph.D., received a doctorate in political science from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he has taught courses on American interest groups and politics in American religion. His dissertation, 'Christianity and the Politics of Poverty in the United States,' compared actions by Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical organizations on economic policy. He currently serves on the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.