Expanding the Culture of Death in Vermont

Why Vermont is low-hanging fruit for the abortion and assisted suicide lobbies

In a strongly worded statement decrying the legalization of assisted suicide in Vermont on May 20, 2013, the Most Reverend Salvatore R. Matano, the bishop of Burlington, called his home state “one of the few Death States, where it is legal for life to be terminated both at its beginning and end stages.” While noting that the state “so rightly opposes the death penalty and the tragedies of war,” Bishop Matano accused Vermont’s legislators of sending a “confusing and conflicting message that undermines its stand for life.”

Bishop Matano’s statement pointed directly to the role that the Vermont state legislature played in bypassing the voters to enact the assisted suicide law. What Bishop Matano did not mention, however, was that Vermont’s lawmakers and courts began to create a culture of death in the state more than four decades ago. In 1972, a full year before the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing legal abortion in Roe v. Wade, the Vermont Supreme Court invalidated Vermont’s abortion statute in Beecham v. Leahy, finding it unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable.

The new “End-of-Life Choices” law, which allows doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication for self-administration by “terminally ill” patients, is just the latest in a long line of laws designed to remove protections for the most vulnerable—including the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly. And, although physician-assisted suicide has been legalized in Oregon, Washington, and Montana, Vermont is the first state to have such a law passed by the legislature without the input of voters or the courts.

Most of Vermont’s politicians appear to take pride in being the first state legislature to pass what they have defined as progressive laws. In 2000, Vermont lawmakers invented the term “civil unions” and became the first state to adopt a civil union law enabling same-sex couples to have access to all the rights and privileges of marriage. On April 7, 2009, Vermont became the first state to permit same-sex couples to marry. In 2011, Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin, became the first sitting governor in the United States to preside at a same-sex wedding.

Governor Shumlin’s role in expanding the Culture of Death

As Vermont’s progressive current governor, Peter Shumlin has done more than any other politician in the state to promote the Culture of Death. Promoting assisted suicide in 2010, Shumlin promised, “As governor, I will strongly champion death with dignity legislation…I will make this a top priority and ask the legislature to take this civil rights issue up.” Joseph Austin of Catholic New Service reported, “From the beginning of his term in January, 2011, Shumlin has made it a priority to pass physician-assisted suicide legislation.” Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, was quoted in the Austin article as saying that Shumlin has “made it his flagship item to pass this so I think that’s a factor” in the bill being passed. The pro-assisted suicide community seems to agree, as Dick Walters, president of Patient Choices at End of Life, credited Governor Shumlin’s “leadership and unwavering commitment” to assisted suicide as having “opened the door” for the legislation.

As he signed the End-of-Life Choices Bill on May 20th—on his father’s 88th birthday—Governor Shumlin praised his state for taking on the controversial debate of assisted suicide: “We have conversations about difficult issues where we disagree, and we have those conversations with good judgment, fairness and inclusiveness,” he said.

But, some of Governor Shumlin’s debating partners from the pro-life community deny that much “conversation” on the issue took place. During his eight terms as a Vermont senator, Shumlin was described by Vermont Right to Life as “shutting down debate” on pro-life issues. In a press release issued on October 15, 2010, Vermont Right to Life accused Shumlin of misrepresenting the facts about abortion in Vermont. The press release alleges that as a legislator, Shumlin voted to allow the use of aborted babies for research (1990); voted to allow state funding of partial-birth abortion in the House Appropriations Bill on May 9, 1997; and sponsored several bills to legalize physician-assisted suicide. As Senate President Pro Tempore, Shumlin was part of the decision to shut down debate in the Senate on the Parental Notification Bill even after it passed House of Representatives in 2001.

He was also part of the decision to shut down debate on fetal homicide legislation in the wake of the horrific deaths of unborn twins when the car their mother was driving was hit head-on by a drug-impaired driver. The impaired driver was cited for DUI, but the accident was described in the press as having “no fatalities” and the driver was not charged with vehicular homicide. Although the mother of the unborn twins petitioned the Vermont legislature to consider passing a fetal homicide bill in the wake of what became known in Vermont as the “Bennington Babies” tragedy, Shumlin refused to allow debate on the bill in the Senate.

Governor Shumlin apparently prides himself on his progressive activism. In 2011, Shumlin took sides against Chick-fil-A, the fast-food restaurant chain that was embroiled in a controversy over the CEO’s stance in favor of traditional marriage. The governor held a press conference on December 5, 2011, launching a campaign to tell the fast food restaurant, “Don’t mess with Vermont,” and to raise legal defense money to support a Vermont t-shirt maker whose slogan and logo were alleged to be copyright infringement on Chic-fil-A’s marketing campaign.

Like many of Vermont’s residents, Governor Shumlin seems to be unencumbered by the demands that religious teaching might make in his life. Born in 1956 to a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, the recently-divorced Shumlin does not list a religion on his homepage. The “Fast Facts” section of his website specifies the governor’s favorite recipe—pasta carbonara—but makes no mention of any religious affiliation.

Vermont and the “Unchurched Belt”

On August 18, 2012, Governor Shumlin was described on www.mypolitik.com as having “no religion” or as “agnostic.” On his official governor’s website, any mention of religious beliefs is omitted. In this, Shumlin has much in common with many Vermont residents. In 2008, the American Religious Identification Survey ranked Vermont as the state with the highest percentage of residents claiming no religion, at 34 percent.

According to Gallup News Service in 2006, Vermont has the lowest rates of church attendance in the US. In analysis based on an aggregated dataset of 68,031 interviews conducted by Gallup between January 2004 and March 2005, Vermont and New Hampshire both have a 24 percent rate of weekly or almost weekly church attendance. This is much lower than the national average of 42 percent, and dramatically lower than rates in Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina which all have Church-attendance rates of 58 percent. Even Connecticut—a state with similar progressive politics to Vermont—has a church attendance rate of 37 percent.

Gallup’s analysis also reveals that for those Vermonters who do claim a religion, Catholics make up 26 percent, with Protestants and other Christians totaling 42.4 percent, and Jews 1.4 percent. However, large percentages of Vermont’s Catholics and Protestants do not attend church. In 1985, Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, who found that California, Oregon, and Washington had the United States’ lowest church membership rates in 1971, called that region the “Unchurched Belt.” Today, Vermont would have be called part of the new “Unchurched Belt”; Gallup reports that the lowest rates of church attendance are now in the New England states of Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine.

It is not a coincidence that the “unchurched” states are also those ushering in the new era of assisted suicide. Voters in Oregon and Washington State approved assisted suicide bills, and Montana’s courts brought assisted suicide to their state. It is also not a coincidence that these unchurched states are also the states with some of the highest suicide rates in the country. Any sociologist knows that a culture of suicide can develop when the barriers to suicide are removed. Once religious barriers to committing suicide are removed, suicide becomes a possibility.

Oregon has the seventh highest suicide rate in the country, with a rate of 17.9 per 100,000. Vermont is not far behind at number 12, with a suicide rate of 16.9. Montana has the third highest suicide rate in the country with a rate of 22.9, and Washington is 23rd with a suicide rate of 14.2. All of these states with laws protecting the right to commit assisted suicide have rates of suicide that are significantly higher than the national average of 12.4. It is difficult not to conclude that when a culture of death emerges through abortion and assisted suicide, that culture permeates the decision-making of other residents of that state.

Vermont residents have chosen and reinforced this culture through the decisions they have made at the ballot box. Beyond Governor Shulman, Patrick Joseph Leahy, a self-described Catholic, who has been awarded a 0 percent voting record by the National Right to Life Committee because of his pro-abortion stance, has been elected to serve as a United States Senator from Vermont since 1975. Now the president pro tempore of the United States Senate, Leahy is third in the presidential line of succession. During his time in the Senate, Leahy has done more than any other senator to create a culture of death in the nation—and beyond—by voting “No” on restricting UN funding for population control policies; voting “No” on defining unborn children as eligible for SCHIP; voting “No” on prohibiting minors from crossing state lines for abortions; voting “No” on barring HHS grants to organizations that perform abortions; voting “Yes” on expanding research to more embryonic stem cell lines; voting “No” on notifying parents of minors who get out-of-state abortions; voting “No” on criminal penalties for harming a fetus during a crime (as in the case of the Bennington Babies); voting “No” on maintaining the ban on military-base abortions; and voting “No” on banning human cloning.

The only time Leahy has voted to protect life was when he voted “Yes” on banning partial-birth abortion, except to save the mother’s life. A graduate of the Catholic St. Michael’s College in Vermont, as well as Georgetown Law, Senator Leahy can be counted on to support every expansion of abortion rights, human cloning, and embryonic stem cell research.

Given the support politicians like Leahy enjoy from Catholic voters in Vermont, it is difficult for Bishop Matano to exert any influence. Vermont’s Catholic Conference has been ineffectual. Last month Connecticut was able to defeat a proposed assisted suicide bill that lawmakers were trying to pass because all people of faith banded together under the leadership of the Family Institute of Connecticut. Peter Wolfgang, the leader of the Family Institute, promised to make the defeat of assisted suicide his top priority in 2013—and he delivered. But Vermont does not have access to organizations like the powerhouse Wolfgang has built. On the Family Institute of Connecticut’s website, Wolfgang described Vermont as “New England’s unguarded flank…Vermont is an outlier, the state where national anti-family activists go to accomplish things they cannot achieve in Connecticut and elsewhere.” Vermont is low-hanging fruit for the abortion and assisted suicide lobbies.

We can be sure that the success in Vermont will embolden the assisted suicide lobby to try this in other states. The lobbyists will return to Connecticut, where Peter Wolfgang’s group will be called back to the battlefield. And they will advance to other states—especially those with low rates of church attendance, and large percentages of those with “no religion.” The assisted suicide lobbyists will bring large amounts of cash from suicide proponents like George Soros, whose foundation gave $1 million to Compassion and Choices—the group that lobbied lawmakers in Vermont to pass the assisted suicide bill. Soros has a long-time commitment to the culture of death. In 1994 he donated $15 million to the Project on Death in America—his own personal initiative to usher in a culture of assisted suicide. In a 2003 Report of Activities of the Project on Death in America, published by the Open Society, Soros wrote a personal essay titled “Reflections on Death in America,” in which he disclosed his admiration for his mother when he learned that she had joined the Hemlock Society.

In a press release in response to the passage of legalized assisted suicide in Vermont, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, called for “all people of good will to fight the future passage of such laws.” Cardinal O’Malley knows that Catholics and other Christians rose to the challenge to defeat such a bill in Connecticut last month. Massachusetts has avoided it also. It can be done.


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About Anne Hendershott 101 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020)