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Originally published July 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 3, 2008 at 1:38 AM

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Death initiative petitions filed

Supporters of an initiative that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication for terminally ill patients to end their lives said they have turned in 320,000 signatures, which likely will qualify I-1000 for the fall ballot. Opponents say the law lacks sufficient safeguards and makes suicide easier to get than health care. Supporters say people want choices about how they end their lives.

Seattle Times health reporter

Information

Yes on 1000: www.yeson1000.org

Coalition Against Assisted

Suicide: noassistedsuicide.com

Washington's proposed"Death with Dignity" initiative

Modeled on Oregon's current law

Would allow mentally competent adult residents of Washington to request and receive a prescription for a lethal dose of medication, provided that they have been diagnosed with a condition that is expected to kill them within six months.

The request must be confirmed by two independent witnesses, a second doctor must confirm the original diagnosis, and the patient must be determined to be free from any mental condition impairing his judgment. The patient must make two requests separated in time by at least 15 days.

Would not allow patients to sign away the decision to anyone else in the event they were to become mentally incompetent, or to give permission to anyone else to administer the medication if they became unable to do so. In short, they must make the request and take the lethal medicine themselves.

Any doctor or health-care organization can opt out of providing the services.

Law would specifically say: "Actions taken in accordance with this act do not, for any purpose, constitute suicide, assisted suicide, mercy killing, or homicide, under the law."

OLYMPIA — Supporters of a so-called "Death With Dignity" initiative turned in an estimated 320,000 signatures Tuesday to the Secretary of State's Office, virtually guaranteeing that Initiative 1000 will be on the November ballot.

Two charismatic and persuasive spokesmen — on opposite sides of the issue — led contingents of supporters to the state Capitol for dueling, emotionally charged news conferences where personal stories were shared, tears shed and fears voiced.

Ironically, neither former Gov. Booth Gardner, a Parkinson's disease patient who filed the initiative in January, nor Duane French, a paralyzed civil servant who heads the opposing disabilities-rights group Not Dead Yet, has a "terminal condition" that would qualify him for aid in dying under I-1000.

But for intensely personal reasons, both feel strongly about this initiative, which would create an Oregon-style law allowing doctors to write prescriptions for lethal medication for mentally competent, terminally ill patients.

Gardner, wearing electronic devices on his belt wired to a sort of "pacemaker" implanted in his brain to help control his relentlessly worsening symptoms, says his own disease has made him aware how important it is for patients facing death to be able to choose how they die.

French, who has used a wheelchair to move since he broke his neck in a diving accident more than 40 years ago, fears the law could become one more tool of oppression and discrimination against people with disabilities.

The two say they like and admire each other, though they both showed up Tuesday to garner public support for their points of view.

Why they object

Just before the I-1000 campaign delivered petitions to the Secretary of State's Office, French, two doctors and a woman disabled from cerebral palsy held a news conference there to explain their opposition to the initiative.

French, a member of the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide, said it's not good public policy — or social justice — to offer assisted suicide when thousands of seriously ill and disabled people can't get basic health care, not to mention pain control and assistance.

French contends that abuses in Oregon have gone unreported, because the law includes no investigative oversight and insufficient safeguards.

Moments later, I-1000 supporters began their news conference on the steps of the Capitol.

Below them, a row of about 60 people passed out "No Assisted Suicide" cards and repeated the Lord's Prayer and Hail Mary's. Among them was Gardner's son, Doug, who says he loves his dad but disagrees with him on this issue.

They hushed when the elder Gardner asked them to respect his right to speak. "I respect where you come from — I share some of your concerns," he told them. But voters will pass the initiative, he predicted, because they value choice in how they die.

Nancy Niedzielski, an I-1000 volunteer, said she had promised her late husband, who died in 2006 after years of treatment for brain cancer and awful complications, that she would help pass a law so other patients could get help in dying. Tears streaming down her face, she signed the last petition and held it to the sky. "This is for you, Randy!"

With that, volunteers delivered boxes holding 20,507 petitions to the Secretary of State's Office, where they will be counted and validated — by mid-August or before.

Friendly opponents

As the crowd drifted off, Gardner looked around.

With the practiced eye of a longtime politician, though he now lacks the confident step, Gardner carefully made his way down to French's side.

"I told Duane, I'm going to work hard to make sure none of his concerns materialize," he told onlookers. After all, Gardner mused, the disabled-group leader thinks they have something in common. "He looked at me and said, 'You're one of us,' " Gardner recalled.

Then the two entered into a spirited discussion about monitoring such a law.

French said people with disabilities are already "disenfranchised and secluded," so it would be unlikely that abuses would ever be reported.

Gardner said he would use his influence — "if there is any left" — to make sure sufficient staffing and money was available.

Then French asked him why the law was needed. "You and I could do it on our own — and nobody would be harmed," French said. So why turn over control to others?

"I don't see it that way," Gardner responded.

A handler broke up the chat, saying the group was leaving, and the two parted amicably.

Earlier, though, both voiced the same thought: Now, the fight really begins.

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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