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Eye On Olympia

Gardner files measure…

Former Gov. Booth Gardner returned to the statehouse Wednesday, again facing a bank of news cameras for what he called his “last campaign”: a battle to allow terminally ill people to have a doctor’s help in ending their own lives.

Gardner, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the early 1990s, says that people should be free to make such a choice for themselves. On Wednesday, he filed a “Death with Dignity” initiative. It would allow mentally competent adults with fatal illnesses and less than 6 months to live to be prescribed a lethal dose of drugs.

As things stand now, Gardner said, “the government takes over, the kids take over, the nurses and doctors take over. You lose your autonomy.”

Washington voters have faced – and rejected — the issue before. In 1991, they rejected by 54 percent a similar measure, Initiative 119.
“I don’t see a clamoring for this,” said Chris Carlson, a Spokane public-affairs consultant also battling Parkinson’s, as well as a rare form of cancer.

“I believe assisted suicide is just flat wrong, a selfish act that breaks faith with family and society,” said Carlson, who was 14 when his father killed himself. Defending life and the weak is a fundamental part of the social contract, he argues, and assisted suicide programs threaten to devalue that.

Some activists for disabled people agree.

“It has the potential to change the culture…and who’s worthy of life and who isn’t,” said Marshall Mitchell, the quadriplegic coordinator of disability studies at Washington State University in Pullman.

“I don’t think that our culture is at the point that a person can make a free, unfettered choice about that,” Mitchell said, citing the pressure of health care costs and a family’s savings. “Shoot, they get guilted into thinking `I’m a burden, I’ve got to go.’”

“The choice of assisted suicide will become some phony form of freedom,” predicts Duane French, also quadriplegic, spokesman for the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide.

But Gardner and other proponents point to nearby Oregon, which in 1994 approved Ballot Measure 16 by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent. It is the only such law in the nation. A three-year court fight and voter referendum followed, all of which Oregon’s law won. It took effect in 1998. It has also survived a years-long attempt, launched in 2001, by the federal government to ban the prescription of barbiturates for suicide.

“The Oregon measure has been in existence for 10 years,” said Jan Polek, a former legislative candidate who lives in Spokane. “One of the fears at the beginning was that it would be a slippery slope and that all sorts of people would be dying who didn’t want to die.”

That hasn’t happened, she said. Statistics compiled by the state of Oregon show that over the past five years, about 65 people a year have requested the lethal drugs and that about 40 annually use them to die.

“I think life with dignity has got to include death with dignity,” said Polek, who’s had a heart attack and open heart surgery. “You have to know that when the end comes, it’s still going to be your choice.”

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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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