Washington -- Nancy Supples drives downtown from Manassas each January, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, to join the protest march in the nation's capital. She writes $20 checks to the National Right to Life Committee. And on the back window of her minivan she keeps a bumper sticker that reads, "Abortion stops a beating heart."
But on a Sunday afternoon last month, this longtime pro-life supporter surprised herself. After standing for an hour in a local abortion protest with her Catholic parish, Supples went straight to a nursing home where a feeding tube had just been withdrawn from Hugh Finn, a 44-year-old former broadcaster hurt in a car accident. She found herself leading a prayer vigil -- and, through that peaceful act, bringing home to Prince William County a slice of a powerful social movement that is starting to sweep the nation.
"I never in a thousand years thought I would get involved with anything at the other end of life," said Supples.
The evolution of this 52-year-old mother -- from pro-life supporter to defender of the life of a dying man -- reflects a quiet but profound shift that has taken place in the nation's right-to-life movement.
Founded in the tense days leading to the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion on demand a quarter-century ago, the movement always has defined itself as defending life from womb to tomb. But now, the end of human life is emerging as the new front line of the fight, and pro-life organizations are being pumped with fresh vigor. They are imparting to end-of-life causes the enormous infrastructure, political skill and facility for passionate rhetoric they amassed in their decades of fighting the horrors of abortion.
This new focus has been most apparent in a recent string of political struggles over assisted suicide. In the four states that have held ballot initiatives lately on the issue, pro-life forces have transformed themselves into opponents of physician-assisted suicide. In Michigan, Roman Catholics and Right to Life of Michigan worked mightily to defeat a ballot initiative last week that would have permitted doctors to engage in assisted suicide. For the first time in state history, Michigan's seven bishops issued a joint letter that was mailed to all 550,000 Catholic households in the state. It urged the faithful to vote "no."
Pro-life groups have been lobbying legislatures as well, urging lawmakers to enact or stiffen assisted-suicide bans. These pro-life lobbyists also are pursuing laws that would limit the ability of relatives to halt the artificial feeding or life support of patients who cannot make such decisions themselves. And in a variety of ways, they are trying to combat the growth of managed health care, which they rightly regard as a way of stinting on expensive care for vulnerable people who are disabled or old.
The nation's largest right-to-life organizations are investing considerable resources to expand this sphere of their work. At he National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the longtime director of pro-life activities, Richard Doerflinger, now devotes almost all his energy to end-of-life issues. Similarly, the National Right to Life Committee has created a department of medical ethics to concentrate on stopping euthanasia.
In broad terms, such groups try to discourage patients from deciding to abandon medical treatment or life support. National Right to Life has created a supurb program urging people to sign "living wills" that direct health care providers to keep them alive by all means possible. In addition, they fear that when patients become incapacitated, their relatives and the nation's health care system are prone to pull the plug too swiftly.
"We are terrified that what is a 'right' to die is going toward a 'duty' to die," said Jim Graham, executive director of the Texas Right to Life Committee, which is now holding workshops proclaiming involuntary euthanasia as a major threat. Last year, the group persuaded pro-life Gov. George W. Bush (R-TX) to veto a living-will statute, because it excluded a provision that would have guaranteed that, if patients' doctors or hospital believed it would be futile to continue their treatment, they could be transferred, if they or their relatives requested, to another health care facility that would promise to sustain them.
From the perspective of the right-to-life movement, the advent of assisted suicide and other questions about care for the dying represents a grim prophecy come true. "It was something we predicted in 1973 [when the Supreme Court handed down Roe] -- the idea about some lives not being meaningful would influence the way society treats the sick and elderly, as well," said the Catholic conference's Doerflinger. "All that has come home to roost now."
So far, such advocacy is having a certain degree of success. At their behest, five states have passed laws guaranteeing that patients can be transferred to a different health care facility if their current doctor or hospital believes if would be futile to continue their care. Many states, including Virginia this year, have enacted statutes that set forth specific civil or criminal penalties for doctors who help their patients commit suicide.
In the states that have put the question of assisted suicide to a referendum, right-to-life groups helped defeat efforts to legalize the practice -- in Washington state in 1991 and California in 1992, as well as Michigan this month. Only in Oregon did voters approve the practice, even though pro-life supporters spent more than $1 million last year in an unsuccessful attempt to mold public opinion against it.
At the federal level, the National Right to Life Committee persuaded Congress to include in last year's federal budget agreement an anti-managed-care provision that allows elderly Medicare patients to arrange for private contracts with individual doctors.
This year, National Right to Life and the Catholic Conference were the main impetus for "lethal dose" legislation that would have used the nation's drug-control laws to make it illegal for any doctor to prescribe enough painkiller to help a patient commit suicide. The effort was intended to undermine Oregon's new law. Although the effort failed, pro-life advocates are vowing to try again next year.