Whose life, courage and character has transformed America the most this year? To speak in theological terms, who spoke to America as a “prophetic witness … a person with vision and deeply held values and beliefs who speaks about justice and mercy”?

Pope Francis, after his visit to Washington, New York and Philadelphia?

Um, no. Guess again.

According to Barbara Coombs Lee, the head of America’s leading assisted suicide lobby group, Compassion & Choices (C&C), it was Brittany Maynard, the just-married woman who drank a lethal dose of barbiturates on November 1 last year, a few weeks short of her 30th birthday. She died in Oregon because assisted suicide was illegal in her home state of California.

Brittany, who had an aggressive brain tumour, wanted to use her death to send a message pleading for the legalisation of assisted suicide. A C&C video about her did exactly that. On October 6 last year it was released on YouTube; on October 5 this year, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill legalising assisted suicide, a measure which had failed six times since 1988. 

“It was kind of a perfect match, if you will,” says Coombs Lee. “We were ready, as an organization, to lift our sails, and the wind of Brittany’s message filled our sails. And so now, we are under full sail ahead. I don’t think anything can stop us now.”

Defeat in America’s biggest state has been a bitter pill for opponents of assisted suicide. But if you’re handed a lemon, make lemonade. It’s also an opportunity to learn the lessons in propaganda which are exemplified so brilliantly in Brittany’s video.

Hire professionals. Until Brittany, C&C videos attracted only a few hundred or a few thousand views. But hers has been seen about 12 million times. Dustin Hoffman’s daughter Allie, a well-known Hollywood figure who runs a New York public relations firm, put together a multi-platform media campaign called Twenty Nine Years (Brittany’s age). A professional story-telling consultant was employed to create the video.

Create a religious frame for the story. Paradoxical as it may seem, Brittany’s video was deeply spiritual in its rhetoric and language. Just as Christ’s suffering redeemed the world, Brittany’s “passing” (another Christian term) would relieve the suffering of many others. In other words, she was a martyr. Barbara Coombs Lee reinforced that in her commentary. She vowed to Brittany before she died that C&C would be “her good and faithful servants”, a phrase taken straight from the Bible.

Find a star who is young, attractive and articulate. And preferably and white. Being young is just a marketing ploy, as most of the people who take advantage of assisted suicide are elderly. Being white probably helped C&C, too, as the assisted suicide movement is largely WWW – worried, well and white. They could identify with Brittany. If you survey the C&C videos and the C&C Board, you will see only white faces and Anglo-Saxon names (with the exception of the Rev Dr Ignacio Castuera, a Mexican who was the first National Chaplain for Planned Parenthood).

Smile. Never criticise. Celebrate love. Despite Brittany’s tears, a pensive smile kept breaking through. She radiated resigned happiness. She never criticised opponents of assisted suicide, at least not directly. 

Make it a family affair. Key to the success of the video was the support of Brittany’s mother and husband. She spoke of dying at home, in her own bed, surrounded by family and friends. The video subtly created parallels between her wedding and her death – both were celebrations. 

Make it a feast for the emotions. The insistent tinkle of a piano score in the background underlined the sincerity and serenity of Brittany’s decision as she dabbed at her eyes.

In short, the video depicts assisted suicide as a joyful, faith-filled, family-friendly, fulfilling choice. Compassion & Choices stole the playbook of its Christian opponents. 

Appealing to your opponents’ own values is the best way to swing voters in a highly polarised environment, according to recent psychological research. Writing in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, sociologists Robb Willer, of Stanford University, and Matthew Feinberg, of the University of Toronto, point out that divisive moral positions will be defended bitterly. But if the argument can be reframed to appeal to opponents’ convictions and not to attack them, it may be possible to swing them around.  

“Moral reframing is not intuitive to people,” Willer says. “When asked to make moral political arguments, people tend to make the ones they believe in and not that of an opposing audience — but the research finds this type of argument unpersuasive.”

For instance, conservatives in their study were sceptical about same-sex marriage when it was defended on the grounds of fairness and equality, which are typical progressive slogans. But when arguments were based on patriotism, people thought again. The idea that “same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans … [who] contribute to the American economy and society” was often quite persuasive.  

“Our natural tendency is to make political arguments in terms of our own morality,” Feinberg says. “But the most effective arguments are based on the values of whomever you are trying to persuade.”

This is the strategy which Compassion & Choices used. Instead of relying on autonomy arguments drawn from its own libertarian philosophy, it has turned assisted suicide into a warm and fuzzy affirmation of traditional American family values. 

How will opponents of assisted suicide construct their argument to win over the libertarians? After the loss in California, they need to think hard.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.