Resisted Suicide

In the wake of Washington state’s Nov. 4 vote allowing physician-assisted suicide, the coalition fighting it refuses to die.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — In the wake of Washington’s Nov. 4 vote allowing physician-assisted suicide, the coalition fighting it refused to die.

The “No on I-1000” campaign is transforming itself into “a grassroots resistance movement,” according to Eileen Geller, executive director of the campaign.

She said the movement will strive “to minimize the deleterious effects of the initiative on vulnerable Washingtonians.”

With Initiative 1000 winning by a 16% margin, Washington became the second state to legalize physician-assisted suicide after Oregon. Former Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, who initiated the campaign for assisted suicide, stated: “Its time has come. It’s as simple as that.”

The opposition struggled to compete with the pro-initiative’s war chest of campaign finances, bolstered by the well-funded Compassion & Choices of Oregon and a network of national and international supporters giving large donations.

In the critical final weeks of the campaign, the coalition’s finances started dwindling. Their television and radio ads were proving effective, along with volunteers distributing materials door-to-door. The polling showed a very tight race.

But Gardner poured $470,000 of his personal fortune into the initiative campaign, along with an additional $280,000 from his extended family. I-1000 backers raised $5.5 million, of which more than 60% came from outside Washington. The Coalition Against Assisted Suicide raised $1.6 million, including many small donations sent by individual state voters.

Accusations that the Catholic Church was bankrolling and overseeing the whole effort to defeat the initiative were false but effective scare tactics in the secular Northwest. The coalition consisted of a cross section of both secular and religious organizations. Money received from church-related groups amounted to about half the total donations received.

Where We Go From Here

Coalition chairman Chris Carlson stated that the reason organizers of the anti-initiative campaign are resisting rather than conceding defeat is because “none of us are the type that take our spears and go back to our tents.

“This is the beginning of a bigger struggle,” Carlson said. “Society is inevitably going to have to face the fact that we are involved in an ongoing challenge to stand for the culture of life against the culture of death.”

Both Geller and Carlson foresee efforts to confront the assisted suicide legislation from a number of angles, including legal challenges, legislative and public policy approaches, and outreach and assistance to those most vulnerable to assisted suicide’s “quick fix.” Carlson said they are already collaborating with a team of attorneys, studying their legal options.

By legalizing I-1000, “the state is encouraging the terminally ill to give up hope,” Carlson stated, “but the coalition does not support hopelessness,” but rather eliminating any thought of assisted suicide by creating “safe havens providing good end-of-life care.”

Geller, a hospice nurse who oversaw the defeat of the first assisted suicide initiative in 1991, stresses that her goal is “this most essential and most necessary work of compassion in action.” This includes “volunteering at nursing homes, advocating for the disabilities community, checking in on our friends suffering from depression, visiting the homebound, and loudly proclaiming that the sick deserve better treatment and care than what they are being given now.” 

Duane French, a quadriplegic who is director of Not Dead Yet, said he will “do what I can to make sure we get greater transparency and increasing protections for vulnerable people through the regulatory process” for the new law. He would like to found a national center for conducting scientific research to explore “what’s really going on in Oregon and now in Washington” under assisted suicide.

Pastoral Plan

The Church in Washington is not backing down either. Seattle Archbishop Alexander Brunett has called for a comprehensive pastoral plan, according to Greg Magnoni, communications director of the Seattle Archdiocese. Parishes would provide education underscoring the dignity of every human life. There would be parish outreach to the terminally ill and their caregivers who live in the area.

But advocacy efforts will continue at the state capitol by the Washington State Catholic Conference, emphasizing care for the disabled, those in hospice care, and anyone at risk for assisted suicide. During administrative review of the initiative, the conference will urge accessibility to the records of those who died by lethal overdose (or by assisted suicide) be included in the law, as well as safeguards for patients.

The Church will support hospices and hospitals that wish to provide proper care rather than assisted suicide in their facilities.

Recently, Providence Health and Services, which runs hospitals and nursing homes across Washington, announced that the corporation “will not support physician-assisted suicide within its ministries.” It said the position is “grounded in our basic values of respect for the sacredness of life, compassionate care of dying and vulnerable persons, and respect for the integrity of medical, nursing and allied health professions.” Health care providers “should never be put in a position of aiding a patient in taking his or her own life.” Providence Health and Services will continue to advocate for hospice and palliative care programs “that provide compassionate, pain-relieving comfort and care for those who are at the end of life.”

The Church in Washington must assist others facing efforts to legalize assisted suicide in their states, Magnoni said, emphasizing that “we need to stand ready to help wherever physician-assisted suicide might be exported next.”

George Eighmey, executive director of Compassion & Choices of Oregon, demurred on the question of future campaign sites, saying: “We are not considering initiatives in other states at this time. We are concentrating on implementing Washington’s new law for the benefit of all.”

Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, agreed and added, “We just look forward to helping the Washington Death with Dignity Act do its work to prompt better end-of-life care throughout the state.”

But Geller said the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide will not “concede the fate of vulnerable Washingtonians to physician-assisted suicide.”

Elenor Schoen is based in

Shoreline, Washington.