They served together as progressive Democratic governors and now, as retired senior statesmen, Booth Gardner and Barbara Roberts have a common cause in advancing a "Death with Dignity" law for Washington that is modeled on the Oregon law created by citizen initiative while Roberts was governor. Few people are more familiar with the Oregon experience than Roberts, governor from 1991 to 1995.
Roberts notes that she watched the evolution of Oregon's law "every step of the way." She was a state legislator when her husband, State Sen. Frank Roberts, introduced the first physician-assisted suicide bills in the Oregon Legislature, all of which failed. She was governor when her husband died of cancer, during the initiative campaign to put the measure on the ballot. She spoke for it in 1994 and 1997. Later she took training for volunteers dealing with end-of-life issues, wrote a book on dying and grieving, and stood by her best friend when she obtained prescriptions to end her life (but ultimately decided against using them). Roberts has testified before legislatures in Vermont and California.
The public in Oregon, and many other states, supports physician-assisted suicide, Roberts is convinced. Because the subject is "frightening to legislators," she adds, a citizen initiative like Oregon's and like I-1000 is generally the only way to pass the law. Roberts spoke with Former Washington Governor Booth Gardner when he began his initiative efforts, and will appear in advertising for the initiative.
I-1000, the Washington "Death with Dignity" initiative, like the Oregon law, applies only to adult patients who are determined by two physicians to be terminally ill, facing death within six months, and mentally capable of making a decision to end their lives. They may request a physician to prescribe a life-ending overdose, usually either secobarbital or pentobarbital, which the patient would self-administer. Applications must be both written and oral, with witnesses.
Oregon has had 11 years' experience with the type of law that Washington voters decide this fall. The law has survived a ballot challenge, a U.S. Supreme Court test, and a full-court press by the Bush Administration. It maintains strong support in the state, and the experience has brought several unexpected results and debunked most of the fears raised by opponents.
Opponents feared the law would be "a burden on the poor," who would be pressured to die rather than run up large medical bills. Statistics collected by the Oregon Public Health Division indicate a population of patients not likely to fit that description. A full 99 percent had either Medicare and private insurance or both, 50 percent had college or graduate degrees, and 66 percent were married or widowed. Patient populations were overwhelmingly (97.4 percent) white. A private organization, Compassion and Choices of Oregon, goes beyond the state's statistics, adding that an equal number (42 percent) of patients self-identified as Republican or Democrat, and 89 percent self-identified with a religious faith.
Roberts is well-equipped to rebut fears that the law would target people with disabilities. She is the mother of an autistic son and was a parent-lobbyist for the disabled long before she entered politics. "Let me state emphatically, I would never support a law that was harmful to individuals with disabilities. This proposed law is not a slippery slope that threatens those with disabilities of any kind," Roberts states in a recent Post-Intelligencer op-ed.
No previously disabled person has used the Oregon law.
Some opponents predicted a rash of applicants from outside Oregon, but that has not occurred. In fact, the use of the law has been rare. The 341 deaths were less than three thousandths of one percent of Oregon deaths from the same diseases during the same period. Doctors had written 541 prescriptions for patients during this period, so less than two-thirds of patients actually used the life-ending drugs. It is unknown how many other Oregonians explored the assisted-suicide option, but Compassion and Choices, a leading organization in this area, reports counseling 160 people during 2007, of which only 31 used the assisted-suicide option. Most others were referred to hospice care or to religious or spiritual counselors. Volunteers reported talking 11 people out of committing violent suicide. "There is no tidal wave of patients moving to Oregon to die, and there is no evidence of a slippery slope toward involuntary euthanasia there, as opponents once feared," the American Medical Association newsletter reported in its May 12 issue. Both doctors and organizations working with patients are required to recommend that patients notify family members; the state reports that 94.7 percent of patients did notify family.
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