Should we be allowed to determine when we die? Euthanasia may be an issue long debated in the U.S., but thus far voters in only one state, Oregon, have legalized the practice of physician-assisted suicide. But a popular former governor is determined to make Washington State the second this November.
Booth Gardner, who served as Washington's governor for two terms in the 1980s and '90s, is now leading a ballot initiative that, if approved, would allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of narcotics to terminally ill patients who want to end their own lives. The campaign is personal for Gardner. Diagnosed more than a decade ago with Parkinson's disease, a debilitating condition, his first reaction was "how can I take control over this," he says. "Then I realized that there was no way I could. I wanted to change that." Gardner has repeatedly said he would end his own life if given the tools to do so legally with dignity. "It is my right as a human being to decide for myself," he adds.
More than 80% of American adults agree with Gardner, a new report shows. Another two-thirds support laws similar to Oregon's, which give people the "right to die" through physician-assisted suicide, according to the survey of 1,070 Americans released May 15 by ELDR Magazine, a publication aimed at senior citizens. More than 80% of respondents also said that, if terminally ill and in pain, they would want to be made unconscious even if it hastened death. "A painful or prolonged death is something everyone worries about," said Dave Bunnell, ELDR's editor.
The ELDR study, as well as similar findings in previous surveys, would indicate that "death with dignity" laws may be gaining national momentum, at least among the elderly. Some of that acceptance is due to the fact that Oregon's law seems to work despite critics' concerns that the law would only encourage abuse, few such instances have been reported since the law was passed in 1994 and implemented in 1997. The state's legislation requires that the patient, who must be at least 18 and an Oregon resident, make two requests to die within two weeks. Two doctors must also concur that the patient has no more than six months to live and that he is not suffering from any mental illness, including depression. Since 2002 about 40 Oregonians each year have taken advantage of the law. Generally, a doctor prescribes a lethal dose of barbiturates, but is not legally allowed to administer it. The patient must take the dose himself.
Washington's proposed law would mirror Oregon's almost exactly. Proponents will have to collect 225,000 petition signatures by July 3 to get it on the ballot, and Gardner is confident they will do so. But if history is any indication, the initiative has little chance of passing in November. Voters have struck down dozens of similar "right to die" laws since the late 1980s, including in Washington State in 1992 when Gardner was governor.
In the past, the Catholic Church and other religious groups have succeeded in rallying enough committed opponents to come out and vote against the measures. This year heading up a coalition against the Washington effort is Chris Carlson, a Seattle resident and public relations executive and a formidable match for Gardner. Carlson also suffers from Parkinson's. And he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2005. "And I'm still around three years later," Carlson says. "But what if I'd been able to give up hope, take my own life too early?"
Carlson says he's living proof that doctors can get things wrong, and he worries that the "right to die" will translate to premature suicide. One of his biggest concerns is that while an MD is supposed to make sure the patient is not depressed, the law does not require people seeking euthanasia to undergo a formal psychiatric evaluation by a mental health professional none of the 49 physician-assisted suicide patients in Oregon last year had one, according to the Oregon Department of Health Services. Meanwhile, Carlson notes, an estimated 90% of suicides in the U.S. are associated with mental illness. "Show me any person diagnosed with terminal illness that isn't immediately depressed," Carlson says.
Opponents also charge that "right to die" laws unfairly target women, minorities and the poor. Some critics say that women and minorities are quicker than others to feel like a financial or emotional burden to their families, and may be more easily persuaded to end their lives. Research from Colorado State University shows that of the 75 suicides Michigan doctor Jack Kevorkian assisted through 1997, 72% were women, and more than three-quarters of those women, while certainly ill and suffering, were not expected to die within six months. Others worry that the law could coerce people with disabilities into suicide. "Financial pressures motivate too many important health care decisions," says opponent Duane French, a quadriplegic. "Sick and disabled people will feel pressured to choose assisted suicide."
Gardner dismisses these worries, noting that none of them have materialized in Oregon in the decade since its law took effect: men and women, for example, have used the law in equal numbers. "You can't live in a perfect world," he says. "But why should anyone be denied the choice to end their life if they want to?" Gardner, who does not suffer from a terminal disease, would not be eligible to take his own life under the proposed law. That is a fight for another day, he says, before adding, "If I can do anything to help people get through their final months, this is worth doing."