After years of gains and setbacks, the national movement for same-sex marriage is enjoying a period of remarkable success. Massachusetts and Connecticut became first adopters in 2004 and 2005 and that came after twenty years of advocacy. Turmoil followed, especially in California. But in 2009 three states (Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire) approved same-sex marriage. New York followed last June, and now the Washington and Maryland legislatures have acted in quick succession. Delaware’s governor predicts his state is not far behind.
It’s making me think about similarities between the movement for death with dignity and LGBT dignity. Like other movements for human liberty, seminal events mark a trajectory toward inevitable success.
For end-of-life choices, common wisdom was that with death, comes suffering. We’ve heard doctors tell a family, “We all have to suffer some, don’t we?” In our movement sparks first fly when people witness end-of-life agony and indignity and think, “This is not right.” Grief magnifies outrage, and awareness dawns that American law and medicine fails us at life’s end.
Powerful forces conspire to keep talk of death taboo. We’re told it’s wrong to seek the relief of death when cancer’s final agonies take hold. But telling our stories at kitchen tables, church basements and community gatherings turns fear into courage, grief into action. My most moving experiences come when we open a conversation about end-of-life choices, see pent-up emotion flood the room and see how eagerly people sign up for advocacy and public service.
I hope Catholic leadership’s decision to stay its hand in Maine arises from a calculation of changing sentiment in society. If Gays and Lesbians are beyond religious oppression it’s because they are no longer vulnerable to shame and guilt for who they are or the rights they seek. Today lawmakers are more likely to embrace their Gay and Lesbian sons and daughters publicly than abandon them in silence and vote against their liberty.
If the pattern holds, it won’t be long before lawmakers are telling stories of the tragically painful deaths they’ve witnessed, rejecting the rhetoric of shame and voting courageously to empower people with choices at the end of life.