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Debra Goldman's Consumer Republic

  • December 11, 2000, 12:00 AM EST
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Out of the Netherlands, the land that brought us Big Brother, comes the latest bleeding-edge innovation. Last month, the Dutch Parliament voted 104 to 40 to allow doctors to help patients die, legalizing a practice that has been going on for decades.

There's no denying the Dutch are on to something. The right to die is creeping into legal codes across Western Europe and the U.S. In Oregon, voters twice approved a measure legalizing doctor-assisted suicide, the second time by 60 percent.

More political victories are sure to follow. While the modern euthanasia movement is not new—it began in the 1930s—it now has the muscle of the global baby boom behind it. One could almost claim boomers have been preparing all their lives for this final battle. As the pioneers of lifestyle choice, they are the natural champions of choices in deathstyle.

The role boomers play in this is illuminated by the work of Michael C. Kearl. A sociology professor at Trinity University, he has analyzed the results of six general social surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Corp. between 1977-78 and 1993-94. Respondents were asked, "When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient's life by some painless means if the patient and his family request it."

Kearl looked at the results by cohort, starting with those born in the 19th century through those born between 1940-49, including first-wave boomers. The latter's enthusiasm for euthanasia outstripped all others. In the first survey, when they were in their 30s, 62 percent approved of euthanasia; by the time they were moving into their 50s, 68 percent did.

Examining attitudes by age also revealed some interesting, if ironic, trends. Euthanasia has the largest following among those least likely to need it: those between the ages of 18 to 29. Over the next several decades, however, enthusiasm cools. Then, after age 50, the percentage of those approving begins to climb again. Whatever the explanation for this rise, it appears that if you live long enough, you might get over it. With the exception of the 1993-94 survey, those 70 and older were less enthusiastic about legal euthanasia than their immediate juniors. Maybe old people, supposedly the main beneficiaries of painless mercy killing, understand something about death the rest of us don't.

A third telling slice of the data was approval rates by religiosity and education. The resulting bar chart looks like a planned community of skyscrapers: the more educated and less observant are more likely to support euthanasia. There is the towering column of college graduates with no religious affiliation (98 percent support the right to die) and the puny bar representing high-school dropouts of strong religious conviction, the group least approving.

"Least" is a relative term here. Even among the 80-plus crowd, euthanasia commands approval levels of more than 50 percent. In 1977, 61.6 agreed with Norc's question; in 1998, 71.3 percent did. If Americans had felt half as strongly about Bush or Gore, we'd be spared the lawsuits.

It is clear the boomers are at the heart of this consensus, particularly the well-educated, well-heeled ones who make up our cultural and institutional elite. They are crossing the Rubicon of age 50 in deep denial about growing older, terrified by aging as no generation before them. Even as they visit the plastic surgeon, they are also confronting contemporaries with serious and mortal illnesses.

While they often describe themselves as "spiritual," they're probably speaking more of the consumption-friendly, yoga-class-and-aromatherapy kind of spirituality than the God-has-dominion-over-my-soul kind.

But even with the power of numbers behind them, this battle will not be easy. Twice in 1997 the Supreme Court struck down challenges to state laws that criminalize suicide, assisted and otherwise. In one case, the justices addressed respondents' various claims of a right "to determine the time and manner of one's death," the "right to die," a "liberty to choose how to die," a right to "control one's final days," the "right to choose a humane, dignified death" and "the liberty to shape death"—rhetoric worthy of Thomas Paine.

The court, however, unanimously concluded that none of these "rights" were "objectively, deeply rooted in this nation's history and tradition." Of course, the justices were talking about the traditions of the American Republic. In the Consumer Republic, these truths about the right to die are self-evident. "Give me liberty or give me death," the patriot said.

Now we want both.