Petition seeks assisted suicide in Washington state

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OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) | There isn’t much John Peyton can do on his own except speak, and soon he’ll lose even that.

The former Boeing computer programmer has Lou Gehrig’s disease, which progressively paralyzes its victims. His doctor gives him three to six months to live.

He is using his last months to oppose a ballot initiative that would allow physicians in Washington state to help terminally ill patients end their lives. Only Oregon has such a law.

“What we’re really doing, I believe, is attempting to eliminate the sufferer so we don’t have to deal with them,” Mr. Peyton said.

Supporters must collect about 225,000 valid voter signatures by July 3 to get the “Washington Death with Dignity Initiative” on the November ballot. The campaign has raised more than $1 million, more than enough for a successful signature drive, setting up a fiercely fought and emotional campaign.

Those in favor of the measure say it’s not meant to encourage people to end their lives prematurely.

“They are realistically accepting that their death is imminent,” said Barbara Coombs Lee, president of the Portland-based group Compassion and Choices, part of the coalition supporting the initiative. “Knowing that, they want to protect themselves from unnecessary and unbearable suffering.”

Outside Oregon, advocates of the idea haven’t fared well. California, Michigan and Maine voters rejected the idea, and bills have failed in statehouses across the country. In Washington, voters rejected physician-assisted suicide in 1991.

This year’s proposal differs in that it would not allow doctors to administer lethal drugs on behalf of patients who couldn’t do so themselves.

Initiative 1000 mirrors the Oregon law, which took effect in 1997 after a lengthy court fight, and would allow terminally ill people to obtain lethal prescription drugs for ending their own lives.

Any patient requesting the fatal medication would have to make two oral requests, 15 days apart, and submit a written request witnessed by two people, including one person who is not a relative, heir, attending doctor or connected with a health care facility where the requester lives.

Two doctors would have to agree on the diagnosis of a terminal disease - giving the patient six months or less to live - and declare the patient “is competent, is acting voluntarily, and has made an informed decision.”

Popular former Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, a Democrat and millionaire heir to the Weyerhaeuser fortune, has waged a public campaign in support of the measure.

Mr. Gardner suffers from Parkinson’s disease, which is incurable but not fatal, so he would not qualify if the initiative becomes law. But his worsening condition has made him an advocate for those who want control over how they die.

“It’s amazing to me how much this can help people get peace of mind,” Mr. Gardner told the Associated Press. “There’s more people who would like to have control over their final days than those who don’t.”

Mr. Gardner’s position has caused strain with longtime friends, political allies and his own family. Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat and Roman Catholic, said she personally can’t support the measure but won’t actively work against it.

Mr. Gardner’s 46-year-old son, Doug, said he and his father didn’t talk for a while once it was clear he was opposed to the measure. While their relationship has improved, the younger Gardner said he’ll still “join the chorus” of voices opposed to Initiative 1000.

“I love him, I want the best for him,” Doug Gardner said. “But don’t make it easier for these people who are in a weak state to have an opt-out option.”

Critics, including many doctors and disability-rights advocates, say assisted-suicide laws could exploit depressed or vulnerable people who worry they’ve become a burden on their families.

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