Special Report

Right to Life Retrospect

It could be worse, as shown by the example of Dr. Walter Sackett.

By 8.30.05

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"While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well." -- Matthew 13:25-26

The culture of life landscape looks like the field in the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. Changes on the Supreme Court might produce an end to Roe v. Wade; Terri Schiavo's starvation death raises the Grim Reaper of passive euthanasia.

As Schiavo's starvation is a given, and Court changes only a possibility, the weeds appear to be taking over.

Commentators have wondered: Has the ghost of Dr. Walter Sackett come back to haunt us? Dr. Sackett was a physician and a Florida legislator; he is credited with offering in 1968 the nation's first death with dignity proposal.

In a March 10, 2005 editorial in the Arlington Catholic Herald, Ken Concannon wrote about "The Right to Kill: From Sackett to Schiavo." As his editorial was written shortly before Terri Schiavo died, Concannon concluded: "If Terri dies by court order, George Felos, [Michael Schiavo's attorney and] the ethical heir of Walter Sackett, will have enormously advanced the cause of euthanasia in this country."

And so he has.

But a look back to 1973 -- the year that the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade and also the year that protests blasted a Sackett proposal -- provides a brighter outlook. Sackett's legislation and his arguments for it could have prevailed; we would be laboring in a poisoned, barren field.

IN 1973, SACKETT OFFERED HB 407, living will legislation. He had been making related proposals for the past five years. Thomas Horkan, executive director emeritus of the Florida Catholic Conference, recalled the history of those years in correspondence with me:

"The [Florida] Legislature [in 1968] took the old Constitution and went through it from the beginning to the end, revising it as they went. Early on, the Basic Rights section of the Constitution came up including the phraseology, 'the right to life, liberty, etc.' Sackett later said that in reading it over he was inspired to offer an amendment to that provision, inserting the words 'death with dignity' after the word 'life' in the constitution. That was quickly voted down. A new constitution was eventually proposed and adopted in the general election of 1968."

Horkan added that Sackett told that story a number of times.

In 1969, Horkan recalled, "two things happened. I was employed by the Florida bishops to come to Tallahassee and start up the Florida Catholic Conference, representing the church in Florida. The second was that Sackett filed his first 'Death with Dignity' bill in the Florida Legislature."

HB 3184, prefiled in October 1969, provided that a patient could claim a "right to death with dignity" and direct "that his life shall not be prolonged beyond the point of a meaningful existence." If the patient was incompetent, next-of-kin could direct that treatment be withdrawn. If the person was disabled and without kinship as provided in the bill, three physicians could determine that the prolongation of life was meaningless; a circuit judge had to approve their determination.

In the early 1970s, wrote Horkan, "Sackett did several things for political purposes. First he reduced the provisions in his bill to limit its provisions to the right of a patient to direct in writing the withdrawal of life-prolonging procedures."

That description fits the text of HB 407, Sackett's 1973 living will bill, as provided by the State Library of Florida.

But the 1973 bill's Legislative Summary retained the earlier "death with dignity" language and affirmed that HB 407 "permits any person to execute a document directing that his life shall not be meaninglessly prolonged."

THE SECOND ACTION SACKETT took, wrote Horkan, is that he "announced publicly that his bill would permit doctors at the two Sunland hospitals for the profoundly retarded in Florida -- one in Tallahassee and one in Orlando -- to withdraw or withhold medications and treatments, including antibiotics, from patients, thereby saving the taxpayers of Florida $5 million per year.

"He said to private groups several times that this was the only way that he could get other legislators to take an interest in his bill because so many of them were only interested in financial and money matters."

On August 7, 1972 -- according to the March 7, 1974 Senate testimony of four U.S. cardinals -- Dr. Sackett testified "before a U.S. Senate Committee on the topic of death with dignity. At that time Dr. Sackett approvingly quoted a statement made to him by a medical director of a Florida hospital for the care of the severely mentally retarded, to the effect that 90% of the 1,500 mentally retarded now in two Florida hospitals should be allowed to die. Dr. Sackett invoked the cost-benefit model. The money now used to care for these severely retarded individuals could be more usefully diverted to other causes."

So, even before Roe v. Wade, Sackett was taking pro-death proposals to a federal audience.

In any event, his propagandizing for passive euthanasia in Florida, wrote Horkan, "energized two organizations of parents of Sunland patients to become politically active, resulting in the establishment of the Florida Association of Retarded Children (now Florida Association of Retarded Citizens) to lobby against the Sackett bill."

In 1973, Sackett got a response on the national level as well. The National Association for Retarded Citizens on November 2 adopted a resolution opposing House Bill 407 of the Florida Legislature.

After summarizing the bill and Sackett's comments on financial benefits, the resolution declared that "it is a basic Constitutional principle that all citizens including mentally retarded persons are entitled to equal rights and equal protection of their rights including the right to preservation of life."

Furthermore, "a diagnosis or prognosis of mental retardation in and of itself should never justify the withholding of treatment or care, or the termination of such person's life by withholding medical treatment or procedures."

NARC also resolved to attack any such legislation wherever it was proposed.

HB 407, like Sackett's other anti-life proposals, never became law.

BUT WHAT IF IT HAD, and passive euthanasia of the severely mentally handicapped had become legal?

What if, lacking opposition from the right to life movement and its allies, passive euthanasia had been legalized throughout the country? Some of the soil for that was right.

Immediately after Roe v. Wade, Sackett said that his mail was coming in ten to one in favor of his HB 407 (AP report cited in the Wanderer, April 12, 1973). While some families saw a mentally handicapped child as a blessing, others did not. One mother reportedly referred to her Down syndrome child as an "uncomprehending vegetable" and said "I would elect to have Elaine die, if I could."

Also, an article in the October 25, 1973 New England Journal of Medicine indicated that 14% of recent deaths in a Yale-New Haven special care nursery were due to withholding treatment.

In this cultural context, what if the logic of Sackett's proposals had been carried forward? We would have not only passive euthanasia of the mentally handicapped, but also active euthanasia. It's a commonplace that the one will follow from the other, as providers will want to end the patient's suffering as expeditiously as possible.

Abortion and euthanasia of the helpless involve coercion already; coercion would have become part of policy. Objectors might have been forced to choose between prison and conscience. A normal life could have become a moral impossibility.

Coercion was budding in 1973: For example, a community agency arranged the nonconsensual sterilization of the Relf girls. Also, a bill in the Oregon legislature called for forcing all hospitals to perform abortions and sterilizations.

As the example of Nazi Germany shows, the pool of perceived undesirables will inevitably widen. Had Sackett prevailed, anyone remotely imperfect or needing assistance might now be at risk in the United States.

HORKAN OFFERED SOME personal reflections on Walter Sackett: "I had occasion to have various dealings with Dr. Sackett, who was actually a good doctor. I later told him that he was a good doctor but a terrible legislator.

"He used to deliver a woman's ninth child free of charge, and handled a large number of adoptions of the children of unwed mothers who were referred to him by doctors from all around the state of Florida. He had been involved in the Florida Medical Association for some time. He used to arrange for housing for the unwed mothers during latter stages of their pregnancies, deliver their babies, and arrange placements privately with families. As an attorney, I handled a number of adoptions for his patients and we got along very well."

Good and evil -- wheat and weeds -- grew side by side within Walter Sackett, as they do within a society. The weeds appeared to overtake him, as his proposals grew more heinous over time. Weeds like the killing of Terri Schiavo thrive, but by now they could have crushed the wheat. We can always anticipate harvest time.

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About the Author

Margaret Moen is an editor and freelance writer in St. Paul, Minnesota.