Former Gov. Booth Gardner's much-publicized support contributed to passage of Washington's assisted-death law.
Call it patient-directed dying
or assisted suicide. However you frame it, everyone has an opinion about former Governor Booth Gardner's campaign to pass an initiative this year that would allow some terminally ill patients to receive medication to end their lives. Opponents of the measure have come out swinging. In the early going, there wasn't much dignity in Gardner's effort to pass the Death with Dignity Act.
While Gardner has been working on the initiative for some years, the public controversy began with a feature story last December in The New York Times Magazine
that painted Gardner as a kind of control freak whose motivations were driven by his own medical condition. The former governor suffers from Parkinson's disease, the symptoms of which have had an impact on his quality of life. The article also explored the inner tensions of Gardner's relationship with his son (first reported by Seattle magazine in 2006
), a Christian who opposes his father's initiative and seems to feel that his father wasn't a very good dad. The piece highlighted the Gardner family's dysfunction.
When Gardner filed the initiative in January, his plan was immediately attacked, opposed by anti-abortion activists
, thousands of whom rallied against it on the steps of the Capitol in Olympia; Catholic organizations
, which promised to work hard against it; and some disability-rights advocates who fear such laws will lead to medically sanctioned killing of the handicapped.
Criticism crossed ideological lines. Governor Christine Gregoire immediately announced
that while she respected fellow Democrat and one-time mentor Gardner and felt sorry for his physical condition, she couldn't support the measure. She said she prays for him. Under a headline calling Gardner's effort a "selfish last act," liberal Seattle Post-Intelligencer
columnist Joel Connelly blasted the former governor
, accusing him of being "self-absorbed." The rhetoric on the right was even harsher. The Family Policy Institute of Washington, a conservative values group, issued a press release
claiming that Gardner was leading us down the slippery slope toward Nazi Germany's worst excesses.
If the well-liked former governor thought he was going to be a poignant poster child for difficult end-of-life issues, he was mistaken. Instead of being praised for empathy and self-sacrifice, he stood accused of being on an ego trip and plotting to bring back the glory days of the Third Reich. So much for the sympathy vote.
All of this underscores
how emotional — and personal — the issue is. Should dying people in the last months of life be permitted to go out on their own terms? Oregon has the only such law on the books, one found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Gardner's initiative is based on it. To qualify, a person must be diagnosed as having a terminal illness with only six months to live and must have a mental health check. And, of course, a person doesn't have to go through with it. Very few people
in Oregon qualify or take advantage of the law — 40 or so per year. In Washington
, which has a larger population, that might mean about 70 per year. Despite the accusations of selfishness, Gardner would not be able to benefit from the law if it were to pass: Parkinson's is not considered a terminal disease.
But Gardner's illness has sensitized him to something faced by many who have had a terminally ill member of the family: The process of dying can sometimes be made more bearable if a patient can control the end or has a means to smooth the path toward the inevitable. In Oregon, quite a few people who order life-ending medications choose never to use them. The Oregon law restores the promise of choice, and sometimes that is comfort enough.
That is the crux of the matter. Gardner's law wouldn't mandate anything. It's not euthanasia, it doesn't legalize suicide, it doesn't ask doctors to do the killing. It strings safety ropes across the slippery slope to prevent abuse. It permits a type of self-administered care that gives dying patients a choice in how and when they "go gentle into that good night." Rather than a narcissistic act, the chronically ill Gardner is spending his remaining political capital on what he calls his "last campaign," one that restores the right of adults to choose how they live right up to the end.