A personal battle over right to die

Times Staff Writer

A looming battle in Washington state over efforts to create a right-to-die law for the terminally ill is a personal one for two men leading it, both of whom are ill. Fighting for the measure is a former governor who wants the freedom to exercise such a right; fighting against it is a former press secretary who can’t imagine anyone wanting to.

Proponents are wrapping up a petition drive to put Initiative 1000, the proposed Washington Death With Dignity Act, on the November ballot.

The initiative would let a doctor prescribe lethal drugs to patients given less than six months to live. Oregon is the only state with such a law, which the Supreme Court upheld in 2006.

Booth Gardner, 71, who served two terms as a Democratic governor in Washington, has Parkinson’s disease and has declared this his “final campaign.”


“There are people like me everywhere who are coping with pain -- they know that their next step is death,” Gardner said in an e-mail interview. “When death is inevitable, we shouldn’t force people to endure agonizing suffering if we don’t have to.”

The proposed law probably wouldn’t apply to him, because Parkinson’s is not terminal. Still, Gardner -- who has experienced “steady increasing loss of basic functions” since his diagnosis 14 years ago -- identifies strongly with the fight.

“We have all made tough decisions throughout our lives, and we should be trusted to make tough decisions about the end of life,” he said. “It’s about autonomy, personal choice and respect. I was in control of my life. I should be allowed to be in control of my death.”

On the other side is Chris Carlson, chairman of a coalition opposing the initiative. A longtime Democratic activist in the Northwest, he was press secretary under Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus.

Carlson, 61, also has Parkinson’s. And in 2005 he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer -- which was later deemed “dormant” after experimental treatment.

“That points to a major flaw in this initiative: Doctors can with some authority tell someone they have six months or less to live. I was supposed to be dead two years ago, but I’m still here,” said Carlson, who considers suicide an “irrational and selfish act.”

The coalition opposing I-1000, as the initiative is called, includes the Roman Catholic Church, conservative Christians, right-to-life groups, and advocates for the disabled. The Catholic Church underwrote the opposition to a similar measure that Washington voters narrowly defeated in 1991.

Even the language of the debate is controversial.


Opponents refer to “assisted suicide” and say the initiative would create a slippery slope to euthanasia.

Proponents prefer “aid in dying.” The initiative’s campaign manager, Alex Morgan, said that with death imminent, the terminally ill wanted only the option to avoid suffering. “The term ‘suicide’ doesn’t conjure a neutral image. Suicide is a violent act,” he said.

In a victory for the Yes on I-1000 campaign, a county judge ruled in March that “suicide” was a loaded term and refused to add the words “physician-assisted suicide” to the ballot measure and official voter pamphlet description.

Instead, voters will read that the initiative allows some terminally ill patients “to request and administer lethal medication” prescribed by a doctor.


That language riles initiative critics.

“People ought to be really wary when somebody wants to redefine the English language,” Carlson said. “By definition, they are killing themselves. To say it is the underlying disease is disingenuous and dishonest.”

This month, 15 state legislators urged voters not to sign the petition to put the initiative on the ballot. Democratic state Sen. Margarita Prentice of Renton said the initiative was “very dangerous” and would not pass the statehouse.

Proponents say I-1000 has safeguards. Under the measure, two doctors would have to agree that the patient is mentally competent. Doctors could only write prescriptions; they could not assist by, for instance, giving a fatal injection.


“We can look at 10 years of experience in Oregon and see that all of the horrible things that the fear-mongers said would happen haven’t happened,” Gardner said.

Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act -- which specifies that ending one’s own life under the terms of the act is legally not suicide -- was passed by voter initiative in 1994 and took effect in late 1997.

Through the end of last year, 341 people died under the act, records indicate.

Several states have rejected similar bills. California lawmakers have defeated five bills on medically assisted suicide over the last dozen years.


In Washington, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, who speaks of Gardner as a mentor and friend, will neither support his initiative nor campaign against it. Said spokesman Aaron Toso: “Gov. Gregoire believes this is a deeply personal issue, and she is not going to tell people how to believe. Voters in Washington will have to make up their own minds.”

Initiative supporters have until July 4 to turn in 225,000 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot. “We don’t have to worry,” campaign manager Morgan said with one month to go.