Unlike father, unlike son: The Gardners are split on 'death with dignity'

Or whatever it's called. Just don't call it suicide.
Or whatever it's called. Just don't call it suicide.

Former Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, a Democrat battling Parkinson's disease, this week filed his Oregon-style right-to-die initiative. Gardner has until July to collect roughly 225,000 valid voter signatures to get the measure placed on the November ballot.

Supporters turned out in force for the filing on Wednesday, Jan. 9, as did opponents led by disability rights advocates in wheelchairs. Also attending the event at the Secretary of State's office in Olympia was Gardner's 45-year old son, Doug, who was recently profiled along with his father in a cover story in The New York Times Magazine.

Doug Gardner is a Christian who opposes assisted suicide. Asked if he will actively campaign against his father's initiative, the younger Gardner said: "I don't know the future. For now I'm comfortable with where it's at ... and I'm not planning on doing debates right now with dad ... So we'll just debate in private."

But Gov. Gardner predicts his son will take a public role in opposing his old man. "Yes, I think he will, because he believes in Democracy and he believes in fighting for what his rights are and he feels the existing system is right for him."

The whole "unlike father, unlike son" dynamic adds a bizarre and discomfiting element to what already promises to be an emotional and fiery debate over assisted suicide in the coming months.

Speaking of the S-word, supporters have launched a parallel campaign to vanquish the term "assisted suicide" from the lexicon – calling it a "biased and pejorative" description of their proposal. They even handed out to reporters a document titled, "It's Not Suicide," with the word "suicide" crossed out.

Arline Hinckley, a social worker and one of the leaders of Gardner's right-to-die campaign, and others are asking Washington reporters and editors to adopt the phrase "aid in dying."

"Suicide in our culture has a negative connotation," argues Hinckley. "It conjures up images of terrorists or severely depressed people or even teenagers whose romance has gone awry. Suicide is an act of an otherwise healthy person."

By contrast, says Hinckley, "Controlling your own dying process is a well-thought-out, rational decision by a person who would want to live if their physical circumstances were otherwise."

Hinckley did not address whether a suicide bomber who's terminally ill - a not uncommon scenario in the Middle East - should thus be called a "hastening-death-bomber."

To bolster their argument, right-to-die supporters cite a number of organizations that are on the record as opposing the term "physician-assisted suicide," including the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, the American College of Legal Medicine, and the Washington State Psychological Association.

Supporters also point to a 1996 Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that says "to hasten by medical means a death that is already in process should not be classified as suicide." Finally, they note that the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) has stopped using "assisted suicide" to describe that state's "Death with Dignity Act."

But Dr. Katrina Hedberg, with ODHS, says that decision was made under threat of legal action. "At that point, we decided that it was easiest for us to ... refer to this as the 'Oregon Death with Dignity Act' and 'participants in the Act,' so that we wouldn't get into this big discussion or confrontation about exactly what to call this."

Hedberg notes the department decided to comply in part because the Oregon law - which was written by right-to-die proponents - specifically says people who take advantage of the law are not committing suicide. Arguably, this distinction in the law could be important for life insurance benefit reasons.

As if to stick a thumb in the eye of the pro-right-to-die forces, opponents have organized themselves as the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide. Duane French is a quadriplegic who's leading that group. He suggests proponents are trying to rewrite the dictionary. "Suicide, if you look up the definition in Webster's, is someone taking their own life. And when you ingest a lethal does of medication, that is taking your own life."

The debate is sure to get some people howling about the "thought police," "word police," or "PC police" run amok. Others, though, would argue that this is about having compassion for dying people and, after all, language does matter.

In case you're interested, here's a list of possible terms to describe Gov. Gardner's proposal. Feel free to weigh in in the comment section:

  • Death with dignity
  • Right to die
  • Physician-assisted suicide
  • Physician-assisted dying
  • Hastening one's death
  • Aid in dying

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