On Nov. 1, five days before Election Day, University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. sent an email to Boston College alumni in Massachusetts concerning Question 2, a ballot measure that would have permitted physician-assisted suicide. The letter enclosed in the email, co-written by various educators in Catholic institutions of higher education throughout Massachusetts, posed arguments against Question 2.
“On November 6, Massachusetts voters will decide Ballot Question 2, which would allow physicians to prescribe a lethal drug enabling individuals to commit suicide,” the letter read. “We write as educators in Catholic institutions of higher education in the Commonwealth to express strong objections to this measure.”
The letter went on to claim that legalizing physician-assisted suicide “would cast aside moral and ethical principles long held in our society and in the medical profession about the sanctity of life and of physicians not doing harm.”
After listing several arguments against Question 2, including perceived inadequate restrictions on its application and potential abuse, the letter concluded with a statement against the ballot measure.
“Life is so central and precious to us as human beings, and any legislation that would allow physicians to prescribe lethal drugs for the purpose of suicide calls for special scrutiny and careful consideration,” the letter read. “In our analysis, Ballot Question 2 is profoundly flawed and should be rejected.”
The letter was signed by Leahy, as well as Susan Gennaro, dean of the Connell School of Nursing; the presidents of Emmanuel College, Holy Cross, Anna Maria College, Regis College, and Stonehill College; and the chair of the nursing department at Emmanuel.
The exact language of the ballot referendum read, “A YES VOTE would enact the proposed law allowing a physician licensed in Massachusetts to prescribe medication, at the request of a terminally-ill patient meeting certain conditions, to end that person’s life.” The ballot referendum was defeated 51 percent to 49 percent by the citizens of Massachusetts on Election Day.
Many alumni and current students have expressed displeasure at Leahy’s letter, claiming that it was an abuse of his position as University president and infringed on personal beliefs.
“I don’t think it was BC’s place to try to influence how their Mass. alumni voted,” said Kristina Cotter, BC ’11. “Death with Dignity is an incredibly controversial issue, and it is my BC education that has given me the skills to ration through and understand the pros and cons of such a proposition.”
Cotter said that she had coincidentally attended a debate on Question 2 before receiving the letter.
“Therefore, returning to my desk and finding a fairly one-sided email from my beloved alma mater was truly disheartening,” Cotter said. “I understand why people supported Prop 2 and why some were against it, and I respect those whose opinions do not line up with mine. I learned the importance of seeing all sides of an issue from BC, and I was very disappointed by their attempt to influence my opinion for the first time in my five years as a member of the BC community.”
Some current students felt similarly.
“Regardless of one’s opinion on Question 2, I am absolutely appalled by this letter,” said Lizzie Jekanowski, A&S ’13. “It is an intrusion upon the personal beliefs of alumni and faculty, and it has no place within an education institution that values critical thinking and free thought.”
Jekanowski went on to say that although the troubling aspects of the letter were not typical of her BC experience, they remained disconcerting to her as a student.
“Throughout my BC experience, I have been impressed by how the personal beliefs-religious, political, and others-of professors and administrators have largely remained just that: personal beliefs,” she said. “They have been kept out of the classroom and meeting room. One’s job and one’s alma mater cannot seek to influence one’s personal political vote: it exploits and manipulates the power relationship between an employee and employer.”
University Spokesman Jack Dunn stated that Leahy and the other administrators merely wanted to bring the attention of their respective alumni to the ballot question, in light of Catholic social teaching and the related controversy.
“The presidents made their decision in light of the referendum’s direct conflict with Catholic social teaching, which proclaims the sanctity of human life and the inherent dignity of the human person,” Dunn said. “The presidents understood that alumni would make their own choices. They simply asked them to carefully consider this referendum, in light of its flaws, prior to voting.”
Kevin Thompson, a Massachusetts native and A&S ’14, had no problem with Leahy expressing his own opinion on the topic, but felt that he should not have forced it on alumni so aggressively.
“I think it is good that Father Leahy makes his opinion known about issues like this, because his opinion reflects upon the University, but I believe he shouldn’t try to encourage alumni to vote one way or another,” Thompson said. “I think it is BC’s job to instill upon us Jesuit beliefs and ways of thought while we are here. Once we graduate, though, we should be considered mature enough to make informed decisions, while simultaneously using what we learned at BC to influence us.”