Assisted suicide foes find ally in Martin Sheen

Actor Martin Sheen has lent his celebrity to the fight against Initiative 1000, a November ballot initiative seeking to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

In radio ads that began Monday and in television ads set to begin today, Sheen tells voters that Initiative 1000 could be used by insurance companies as a loophole to avoid paying high costs for end-of-life care.

“People who are ill need real medical care and compassion, not lethal drugs,” Sheen said in the radio ad, which was paid for by the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide, an Olympia-based group.

Sheen, who played a president on “The West Wing,” brings credibility to the coalition’s cause because he has a history of political activity on behalf of vulnerable people, said Chris Carlson, chairman of the group.

“In this day and age it’s important that you have a person in your advertising in whom the public will posit a lot of trust and faith,” Carlson said.

Supporters of the initiative, which they have termed the “Death with Dignity” act, say the ability to end one’s own life in the case of terminal illness shouldn’t be sullied by celebrities trying to sway public opinion.

“They’re relying on a Hollywood celebrity, and we’re relying on real people who have had real experience with terminal illness,” said Anne Martens, spokeswoman for Yes on I-1000, the group that first brought the initiative forward.

“We’re talking about giving terminally ill patients a choice,” she said. “That choice doesn’t belong to the government or religious institutions, and it does not belong to Martin Sheen.”

The initiative, created by former Gov. Booth Gardner, would allow terminally ill people to request lethal medication.

The drug would only be available to people who have been diagnosed by at least two physicians with an illness that is believed will result in death within six months, and they must submit both oral and written requests and observe a waiting period before taking the lethal dose.

“It’s a dangerous idea that could hurt thousands of low-income people who need medical care,” Sheen says in the ad. “It’s a step backwards, and I urge you to vote ‘No.’”

Sheen played President Josiah Bartlet on “The West Wing,” which aired between 1999 and 2006, and appeared in movies including “Apocalypse Now.” The actor, a Democrat, has a long history of political activism. He supported Cesar Chavez in the 1960s and prayed with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan while she camped out near President Bush’s home in Texas.

Sheen, a Roman Catholic, has also spoken out against abortion and other issues he says are influenced by his faith.

Supporters of assisted suicide want to force the issue into partisan camps, with liberals and Democrats for it, and conservatives and Republicans against, Carlson said. With Sheen as a vocal opponent, other voters with liberal social views will know that it’s okay to break from partisan labels, Carlson said.

“One way we demonstrate very dramatically to the public that this is not a partisan issue is that we found the ideal spokesperson in Martin Sheen,” Carlson said. “That drives our message home.”

Martens said her organization has not considered political leanings in the debate.

“This is a personal issue,” she said.

The Coalition Against Assisted Suicide first contacted Sheen about two weeks ago, Carlson said. Sheen donated his time — about half a day — but Carlson’s group paid between $20,000 and $30,000 for studio time for Sheen to create the ads.

The group is spending about $750,000 to run the ads on radio and television stations statewide, Carlson said. That’s the majority of their total budget of about $1.2 million.

The ads will continue to run as long as the group can afford to buy air time, Carlson said.

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or

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