July polls showed a majority of Michigan's voters were in favor of legalizing some form of assisted suicide.
Then a stealth campaign funded primarily by religious groups began kicking in with a multimillion dollar media blitz attacking Proposal B, a November ballot proposal that if approved, would have legalized assisted suicide for the terminally ill in Michigan.
Forces opposed to Prop. B outspent assisted suicide proponents nearly 5-to-1 in the election. Since Merian's Friends, the ballot committee that supported Prop. B, spent $800,000 to get the issue on the ballot, leaving them approximately $360,000 to spend on the election campaign itself, it was really more like a 15-1 spending advantage enjoyed by the opposition.
Citizens for Compassionate Care, the major opposing ballot committee, spent $5.3 million, about $3.4 million of which came from Catholic organizations, CCC spokesperson Tom Farrell says.
"The statement that we made at the time about the Catholic gifts was that it was part of the church's 2,000-year-old tradition of upholding the sanctity of human life," Farrell says.
However, some see such large contributions to political causes in less lofty terms, claiming they play too large a role in deciding elections and help drive a political process in which the people with the most money usually win.
Lansing pollster Ed Sarpolus says polls taken by his EPIC/MRA firm in July, before the mid-September onset of CCC's television advertising blitz, showed about 56 percent of Michigan voters were willing to approve legalizing assisted suicide.
By election day, a startling 71 percent of voters cast ballots against Prop. B.
Sarpolus attributes the remarkable turnaround to two things: that the ads worked and that in terms of Prop. B, people only knew what Citizens for Compassionate Care told them.
Merian's Friends' spokesperson Ed Pierce says Merian's Friends could barely afford to run their one commercial, featuring an endorsement by former Gov. Bill Milliken, for even a few days.
"The proponents never had a chance to explain the proposal," Sarpolus says. "We don't know how the public would have voted if there had been a balance of information."
He added, "It doesn't make any difference who is right or wrong. It's whoever has the money."
Farrell says that in addition to the $3.4 million contributed by Catholic organizations including the Michigan Catholic Conference, CCC's campaign contributions included more than $137,000 from members of Right to Life groups. He says CCC also received generous individual donations from businessmen including millionaire Tom Monaghan and Amway Corp. cofounder Richard DeVos, both of whom are known for contributing large sums of money to conservative and anti-abortion causes.
Farrell says CCC didn't try to hide the fact that it was receiving contributions from religious groups. However, a television commercial released early in the campaign gave a breakdown of Prop. B's opponents but made no mention of religious groups.
The commercial depicts a scale loaded down on one side with a number of Prop. B's other opponents, including "the medical community," "business community leaders," "the legal community," and "disability groups." It also mentions "members of minority and senior citizen groups, members from both parties in the state Legislature ... and the governor" as opponents.
Asked why that commercial and the rest of CCC's ad campaign omitted any mention of the religious groups that provided the bulk of the ballot committee's funding, Farrell suggested that there wasn't enough time in the commercials to go into detail about all of the religious groups.
Later, he said "The religious groups kept a low profile, and that was on purpose. They didn't want people to think it was just the Catholics or just the Religious Right."
Farrell says nearly 8,000 individual contributions show the assisted suicide proposal had broad-based opposition.
Sarpolus says what defeated Prop. B wasn't a broad coalition but an expensive statewide television ad campaign that fed the public only one side of the issue.
Although religious leaders made clear both on TV and in other forums that they reject assisted suicide on moral grounds, the CCC also didn't mention this motivation on television.
"They didn't want to discuss that," Sarpolus says. "People might say... 'Where's the separation of church and state?'"
Farrell says he will recommend that CCC stay intact so that the organization will have the option of tackling future battles over assisted suicide. Pierce says his group will decide its next move early next year.
"My own opinion is that we don't try another referendum unless we have more donations up front," he says. "I'm out of gas."
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