Assisted-suicide decision may bring new effort here
Seattle Times staff reporter
With Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law upheld by the nation's highest court, right-to-die supporters in Washington state Tuesday said a new push for a similar law here is inevitable.
"This is a huge defeat to the opponents of choice in dying," said Robb Miller, executive director of Compassion & Choices of Washington, the state's largest aid-in-dying advocacy group. "I think the chances of an initiative passing here are very, very good.
"People here are frustrated that people in Oregon have this right and we don't, and we're right next door."
Some Democratic state lawmakers said Tuesday that they were considering sponsoring bills this session to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, said he had been moved by a constituent who told him how his young wife suffered while she died of cancer.
"He said to me, 'You've got to fix this,' " Dunshee said.
Sen. Pat Thibaudeau, D-Seattle, who sponsored such a bill in the mid-'90s, said she was considering trying a new proposal, although it would be just as controversial as it was then.
"I don't doubt we need something," Thibaudeau said. "I would be happy to introduce it if I thought it was going to go anywhere."
Washington voters in 1991 narrowly rejected Initiative 119, which would have allowed doctors to write prescriptions to hasten death but, unlike Oregon's law, would also have allowed them to administer lethal injections to terminally ill patients who aren't able to take the medications on their own. Oregon's law allows doctors to write prescriptions for patients, who must administer the drugs themselves.
No discussions were being held yet on the idea of trying a new voter initiative, Miller said. But he added: "I do think it's inevitable it will pass here now. It's just a question of when."
Not so fast, said right-to-life organizations.
"We have always anticipated they would try it again in the state of Washington," said Dan Kennedy, CEO of Human Life of Washington.
"I would be surprised if those who support physician-assisted suicide could find a lot of support across the state, financial or otherwise. As far as the people of Washington state demanding such a thing, I just don't see it."
Despite the Supreme Court's decision, Kennedy said voters would be swayed against such a law by "slippery slope" reports from the Netherlands, including instances of assisted suicide among dying patients who are depressed, or who are elderly but not terminally ill.
But supporters of an assisted-suicide initiative believe money, not voter support, would be their biggest hurdle.
Miller said estimates are that a campaign would cost about $10 million, and that would mean donations from outside the state. And that would draw opponents from elsewhere, too.
"These sorts of things are not local anymore — they're national," he said.
In Oregon, proponents spent about $2 million in 1994 to pass its assisted-suicide initiative, while opponents spent about $5 million, said George Eighmey, executive director of Compassion & Choices of Oregon, which has actively supported the measure through rounds of legal challenges. He estimates both sides together have spent about $27 million since the initiative campaign began.
Polls have shown that voters support patient autonomy when it comes to life-or-death decisions, but are divided on "assistance" in dying.
And in Washington, some doctors have made their peace with the issue in the 15 years since the failed Initiative 119, and are "covertly, discreetly" helping terminally ill patients die, Miller said.
"It's relatively easy in Washington to find a physician who supports aid in dying," he said.
And some doctors believe it saves the paperwork, time and scrutiny that an Oregon-style law would bring, he said. "We know there are physicians who think it should continue to be between the physician and the patient."
The Washington State Medical Association (WSMA) opposed I-119, but also opposed the federal government's action against doctors in the Oregon case, said Executive Director Tom Curry.
"It was not an endorsement of the physician-assisted suicide bill passed in Oregon," he added. And he said he would not predict where the WSMA would side on an assisted-suicide law in Washington.
"This has been an issue that doctors have had a split opinion on here and elsewhere," he said. "I'm sure the WSMA would be engaged in a vigorous debate internally, and I wouldn't want to presuppose the outcome of that."
Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or email@example.com
Seattle Times staff reporter Ralph Thomas contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company