Voters to decide 'Death with Dignity' initiative

Voters this November will be asked to decide whether competent, terminally ill adult residents of this state with six or fewer months to live should be allowed to obtain a prescription for a lethal dose of medication, which they could administer themselves.

Supporters of Initiative 1000, the Washington Death with Dignity Act, turned in 317,000 petition signatures to the Washington Secretary of State's Office in early July.

Dawna Zullo of Sequim is the Clallam County coordinator for the Yes On I-1000 campaign, which is seeking to pass a law modeled after Oregon's Death With Dignity Act.

She also is a case manager for Compassion and Choices, a national organization that educates and advocates on behalf of the terminally ill.

According to the Compassion and Choices of Washington Web site, the group "provides advocacy, counseling, and emotional support to qualified individuals who desire a peaceful, humane death."

Zullo, 66, said as the group's only case manager on the North Olympic Peninsula, she's been watching numerous patients who are facing end-of-life decisions.

"I've been confronted with so many patients that say 'This is my right.' and 'They can't control the pain with my particular kind of cancer,'" she said.

"The underlying thing I hear is the government has no business saying I must stick around and suffer, this is my civil right," Zullo said.

"I feel it's my own right, if the suffering is intolerable, to self-administer medication that affords me a peaceful death," she said.

Zullo said she was the coordinator for the signature gathering and talked extensively with the volunteers.

They heard young people comment that dogs are given a humane death

instead of being allowed to suffer so why can't they have that right? she said. They also talked to people in their 40s and 50s who had spouses in pain from terminal diseases who "definitely" signed the petition, Zullo said.

I-1000 is "very similar" to Initiative 119 defeated by Washington voters in 1991 but actually is modeled after Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, Zullo said.

Initiative 119 was defeated by Washington voters in November 1991 by 55 percent to 45 percent. It would have allowed terminally ill adults to "request and receive from a physician aid-in-dying."

The Oregon Death with Dignity Act allows terminally-ill residents of that state with six months to live to obtain a prescription for lethal medication that they take themselves.

It was a citizens' initiative twice approved by Oregon voters.

The first time was November 1994 when it passed by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent. But an injunction delayed implementation until Oct. 27, 1997.

Then in November 1997, Oregon voters approved the law a second time, rejecting a ballot measure to repeal it by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent.

Finally, the law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on a 6-3 vote in February 2006.

Zullo said it's important to note that the term "suicide" has been kept out of the law's language in favor of "aid in dying" and "death with dignity" because terminally ill people already are dying.

Opponents say the law could lead to abuses such as family members pressuring terminally ill relatives to end their lives before medical expenses bankrupt the family.

But Zullo said that has not happened according to a study done in Oregon of how that state's law has worked during its first 10 years.

"The Oregon study says that has not happened. The law hasn't been abused in Oregon," she said.

Often it's the terminally ill patients who have to convince the family members to let them go through with it, Zullo said.

"The people I've met, the families are supportive but not pushy," she said.

The Oregon Death with Dignity Act requires the Oregon Department of Human Services to collect information on compliance with the law and provide it to the public in an annual statistical report.

The state's 2006 data shows that those who used the law were all mentally competent and terminally ill; all made repeated voluntary requests for assistance; and all had access to hospice programs.

The 2006 statistics also

showed that 65 terminal patients applied for lethal prescriptions but only 46 used those prescriptions.

Zullo said a lot of people get the lethal medication, don't take it and die a peaceful death anyway but just having it if necessary gives them peace of mind.

"The 10-year study in Oregon is so profound, lots of people are saying it's time for us to do that here," she said.

Spokane public relations executive John Carlson is leading the opposition to the initiative. "People should vote against I-1000 because there's major flaws," he said.

The 61-year-old Carlson said his personal story is the best illustration of why the initiative shouldn't become law.

He was diagnosed in 2001 with Parkinson's disease, which is the same medical condition that afflicts 71-year-old former Washington governor Booth Gardner, who is leading the campaign supporting I-1000, Carlson said.

Then in November 2005, he was diagnosed with a rare form of terminal cancer, carcinoid cancer, and given six months to live, Carlson said.

"Had I-1000 been law, I would have had the ability to ask for a lethal prescription. Therein lies the problem, people prematurely concluding their life is over with. I'm two years past my 'six months to live' point," he said.

Carlson said I-1000 is a way of telling people that they should give up hope, when given the advances made by modern medicine, they shouldn't.

"My cancer will recur but I've seen my granddaughter be born and hiked into Hells Canyon. I continue to enjoy a full and rich life. Anything that encourages people to think life is prematurely over is just wrong," he said.

When I-119 was defeated in 1991, the first of the 80 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 were only 45 years old but now the oldest of that generation is 62.

"Surveys I've seen have said baby boomers aged 45-57 tend to support this initiative but when they get in their 60s and see it can really apply to them and someone else might have control, they start to shift dramatically," Carlson said.

"What starts out as an option soon becomes an obligation. People will feel pressured to conserve their estate or not be a burden to their family," he said.

Since suicide wouldn't be listed as the cause of death on the death certificate, there would be really no way to track those kinds of abuses, Carlson said.

"The underlying disease is not the cause. We'll never know about the abuses," he said.

Carlson said given advances in modern palliative care, pain management shouldn't be an issue anymore.

"It's all about power. Proponents feel there's some sort of special right to end their lives," he said.

"The initiative doesn't mandate that person see a counselor. Most people don't want to kill themselves, it's unnatural. Our society puts a value on life and this is sending a decidedly contrary message," Carlson said.

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