Former Gov. Gardner becomes assisted suicide’s advocate

Booth Gardner will stride back into the political spotlight this week in hopes of giving Washington residents the power to choose death over life.

The former Democratic governor is the face and force behind an initiative to let terminally ill adults legally obtain and use medication to kill themselves.

Filing of the measure is expected Wednesday morning.

“People make all the other tough decisions in life. I have a real difficult time believing they are not qualified to make this decision,” Gardner said in a recent conversation at his Tacoma home.

Gardner, 71, said he isn’t seeking a legal way out for himself.

Though he suffers, sometimes mightily, with Parkinson’s disease, the ailment corroding his central nervous system for more than a decade is incurable not terminal.

Yet living with it and the reracking of possibilities it imposed on his life led him to the conclusion a couple years back that Washington needed a law similar to Oregon’s.

There, voters passed the Death with Dignity Act in 1994. But it took three years of legal fights and a second ballot battle before it took effect in 1997.

Records show 292 people are known to have used it to commit suicide between 1997 and the end of 2006. Others obtained the necessary medications but died from their underlying disease, according to state-compiled figures.

What’s proposed in Washington would establish nearly identical criteria for obtaining prescriptions for lethal dosage of life-ending medication.

Adults must be in their final six months of life, be found mentally competent by two doctors, receive counseling on alternatives such as hospice care and be given the opportunity to change their mind.

“It allows people who are terminally ill but still have their wits about them to decide how to die,” Gardner said.

Supporters set up a campaign committee last year and had raised $253,000 by Dec. 1.

For them, this is strategically the best year to try.

Presidential elections bring out the largest numbers of voters. Many of those who will show up in November will be college students and political independents unlikely to be swayed on this question by church or party decree.

Of course, many candidates won’t want to see it. They will avoid it, unsure how it might play out. In the governor’s race, it may make little difference.

Gardner said he expects both Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire and Republican challenger Dino Rossi to oppose it because of their religious beliefs.

Opposition statewide is expected to be led by those in the religious and medical communities.

They will argue it is “morally wrong to take your own life. I think it is morally right,” Gardner said.

“I will tell people don’t make up your mind based on what you hear from me or the church or anyone else. Make up your own mind,” he said.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at heraldnet.com. He can be heard at 8 a.m. Mondays on “The Morning Show” on KSER (90.7 FM). Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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