The campaign begins to legalize physician-assisted suicide

Former Washington Gov. Booth Gardner files paperwork this week to launch a signature drive to put a measure on the ballot. Gov. Chris Gregoire says she will oppose it. And proponents and opponents are organizing.
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Former Gov. Booth Gardner's much-publicized support contributed to passage of Washington's assisted-death law.

Former Washington Gov. Booth Gardner files paperwork this week to launch a signature drive to put a measure on the ballot. Gov. Chris Gregoire says she will oppose it. And proponents and opponents are organizing.

Washington is about to become the next battleground in the debate over physician-assisted suicide. Former Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, a Democrat who's battling Parkinson's disease, was be in Olympia on Wednesday, Jan. 9, to file paperwork for a "Death With Dignity" initiative. Gardner was recently the subject of a long profile in The New York Times Magazine.

Proponents didn't provide an advance copy of the ballot language, but Gardner says the initiative largely mimics Oregon's Death With Dignity Act. That measure was passed by Oregon voters in 1994 and took effect in 1997 after a protracted court battle. As of 2006, 292 patients had died after taking advantage of the Oregon law.

Essentially, the law in Oregon allows doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of sedatives to terminally ill patients who want to kill themselves. Several safeguards are in place, including:

  • The patient must be an Oregon resident.
  • Two physicians must determine the patient is suffering from a terminal disease.
  • The patient must make his/her request for the prescription three times within 15 days - once in writing.
  • The request must be made in the presence of two witnesses - including one who is not related to the patient and doesn't have a stake in whether the patient lives or dies.

Gardner acknowledges that since Parkinson's isn't considered a terminal disease, he wouldn't qualify under his assisted suicide proposal. Even so, he says his struggle with Parkinson's has given him a new appreciation for the desire to have control at the end of one's life. Gardner jokes that he might be considered something of a "control freak."

In 1991, Washington voters rejected an assisted suicide initiative - I-119. But that measure had an added controversy. It was written so as to leave open the possibility that dying patients could receive a lethal injection. Gardner's proposal would prohibit that option.

In addition, Gardner says a lot has changed since the early 1990s, including the fact Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who served a prison sentence in Michigan for helping patients die, is no longer in the news.

"He was running loose at that time," says Gardner. "And I think people got scared of that, and he's not a factor in this issue, not today." Gardner also believes Oregon's 10-year history with assisted suicide helps make the case.

Gardner and his supporters are likely to succeed in getting their measure on Washington's November ballot. They'll have to collect nearly 225,000 voter signatures by July. Gardner estimates the campaign will need to raise at least $2 million. He plans to be a major contributor.

Meanwhile, an opposition group has already formed calling itself the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide. It's a group of disability-rights advocates, health-care workers, and religious leaders led by Duane French, a quadriplegic who heads the Washington chapter of Not Dead Yet.

"It opens the door for abuses and leads us to the possibility that people with disabilities and folks with terminal illness could be pressured to consider assisted suicide," says French, who was paralyzed in a boyhood diving accident.

This is a common refrain from critics - that the poor, disenfranchised, and disabled are likely to be a disproportionate number of the patients who opt to take their own lives. Official data from Oregon suggest otherwise. In 2006, for instance, 87 percent of patients who opted to take their own lives had cancer, and most had some form of health insurance.

But French rejects those statistics, arguing that Oregon's assisted-suicide reporting requirements are weak. He and other critics also believe the so-called safeguards are easy to get around. One specific criticism: patients can "doctor-shop" for a physician until they find one who will prescribe the lethal dose of medicine.

According to the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide, 25 states have considered assisted suicide in one form or another - but so far only Oregon has made it legal. However, Washington's proximity to Oregon and the fact the yes campaign has a high-profile leader in former Gov. Gardner could bode well for supporters.

Already, though, Washington's current governor is indicating she can't support the measure. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, got emotional when asked her position on the topic: "I love my friend Booth Gardner. And my heart goes out to his condition. And what he's had to face ... But I find it on a personal level very, very difficult to support assisted suicide." Gregoire is Catholic, and the Catholic Church has been a vocal opponent of assisted suicide.


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