Selling Suicide in Seattle

A report on the state of the assisted suicide proposal in Washington, and how efforts to lobby the state’s medical association paid off.
by Elenor K. Schoen | Source: NCRegister.com

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OLYMPIA, Wash. As volunteers lugged boxes of signed petitions for assisted suicide up the steps of the Washington Legislature, former Gov. Booth Gardner announced: "We've crossed the first hurdle, and we’ve crossed it cleanly, with room to spare. And I think we’re going to go all the way. I'd bet on it."

His "Death With Dignity" supporters presented the secretary of state's office with 320,000 signatures July 2. That's well above the minimum requirement of 224,880.

Counting and verifying signatures has been completed, as of July 25, allowing Initiative 1000 to be included on the November ballot.

Nancy Niedzielski symbolically signed the final petition. Two years ago, Niedzielski watched her husband, Randy, die of brain cancer. At his request, she is trying to change the law favoring physician-assisted suicide, personally getting more than 1,600 signatures.

"Terminally ill patients in Washington should have the same choices that they have in Oregon," Niedzielski said. "It is a compassionate act to honor a person’s final wish. … Nobody, not the government and not the Church, should tell you how much you have to suffer if you are terminally ill." She said that if you wish to "choose a death with dignity, that decision should be your decision."

But equally represented at the July 2 event were opponents of Initiative 1000. Duane French, a quadriplegic and director of Not Dead Yet, Washington, joined fellow member Joelle Brouner, crippled by cerebral palsy, and Drs. Susan Rutherford and Paddie O'Halloran for a press conference.

French stressed that Gardner's campaign spent almost $1 million to collect signatures, proving "they have very little public support and a very small volunteer base."

Most funding for I-1000 has come from out-of-state, to which he remarked: "To all the people in California and New York who sent money so we in Washington can more easily kill ourselves, I think we have to say, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'"

Peg Sandee, the executive director of the Portland, Ore.-based Death With Dignity National Center, stated recently that: "Most of our donations come from Washington, Oregon, California, New York and Florida."

She explained that the average donor to the non-profit effort is "a 55-year-old white woman from Portland." The center is dedicated to seeing that the Oregon law is replicated in other states.

O'Halloran stressed the impact of assisted suicide on the most vulnerable, low-income and disabled patients.

"We're concerned that an option to die by assisted suicide will come to be perceived as a duty to die," she said.

Rutherford added: "I-1000 is dangerous because it permits bad medical practice and shrouds it in secrecy."

The initiative has no peer review, no requirement for competence in end-of-life care, while providing immunity for the participating doctors, eliminating disciplinary actions or lawsuits for malpractice.

"Proponents often tell us to look how well things have worked in Oregon," said O'Halloran. "But we really can’t be sure what's going on in Oregon." The law prevents state officials from investigating deaths caused by assisted suicide, with no penalties for non-reporting of cases, or incomplete or inaccurate information.

The Washington State Medical Association agrees that I-1000 is a bad idea.

In a July 2 press release, the association said that members voted against assisted suicide during a 2007 annual meeting and has opposed the practice since 1991.

"We believe physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the role of physicians as healers," said Washington State Medical Association president, Dr. Brian Wicks. "Patients put their trust in physicians, and that bond of trust would be irrevocably harmed by the provisions of this dangerous initiative."

The American Medical Association, along with 49 state medical associations, opposes assisted suicide. Even the Oregon Medical Association supported repealing the state's "Death With Dignity Act" in 1997, characterizing it as "fundamentally flawed."

Wicks stated that I-1000 gives doctors power that we do not want and that we believe is contrary to good medical practice … [distracting] from symptom-directed end-of-life care, providing comfort for dying patients and their families. Good care, Wicks emphasized, should remain the focus, never shifting toward helping patients kill themselves. He added that even those supporting assisted suicide in principle would find problems with I-1000.

"Under I-1000, if a physician prescribes a lethal overdose, when that physician completes the death certificate, he or she is actually required to list the underlying disease as the cause of death, knowing full well that the patient died due to the suicidal overdose he or she prescribed," Wicks said. "To my knowledge, there’s no other situation in medicine in which the death certificate is deliberately falsified and in which this falsification is mandated by law."

Meanwhile, 15 Washington Democrat and Republican legislators have declared their opposition to I-1000.

State Rep. Mark Miloscia, D-Federal Way, said: "We want to make certain that people are pain-free, have dignity and control over their medical treatment. ... But, Initiative 1000 replaces quality care with a cheap, quick exit."

State Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, a registered nurse, agreed: "We need to work together to protect those who might feel financial pressures to end their lives early."

Boots on the Ground

The Coalition Against Assisted Suicide's chairman, Chris Carlson, says he is "cautiously optimistic" about defeating I-1000. A seasoned political campaigner, Carlson was press secretary to Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus and director of public affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior under President Carter. He is also in remission from cancer.

With enough signatures gathered for the ballot, "our natural allies will be galvanized," he believes. And although the coalition may not outspend Booth Gardner's campaign, Carlson believes they will outwork Gardner's supporters.

Carlson sees a replay of the state’s initiative battle in 1991, where sufficient doubts changed the minds of the undecided “squishy middle” to defeat physician-assisted suicide in Washington, 54% to 46%.

He noted that there is "a not too thinly veiled, anti-Catholic bigotry" in the pro-initiative campaign, but hopes Catholics will focus on this life and death decision, saying: "This issue will rise or fall on how strongly people of faith rise to the occasion."

Seattle Archbishop Alex Brunett stated recently: "Assisted suicide suggests that the terminally ill have a responsibility to hurry up and die.” But he said that the very real challenge of pain and suffering at the end of life “tests our human resolve to reach out compassionately to the dying."

In his pastoral capacity, Archbishop Brunett has seen that "when those who are near death receive adequate care, [while being with] those who love them, their last days can take on special meaning,” offering family and friends “an opportunity for final expressions of love and reconciliation."

Said the archbishop: "I believe that saying No to Initiative 1000 is a meaningful way of saying Yes to life."

Elenor K. Schoen writes from Shoreline, Washington.


On the Net:

For more information, visit the Washington State Catholic Conference website: www.TheWSCC.org/legislation.



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