Two views on assisted suicide and Initiative 1000
ADAM WILSON; The Olympian
It didn’t surprise Olympia employee Jonathan Turlove when his mother, who lived in Oregon, said she was considering ending her life.
At 58, Fran Stills had battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer, for a decade. She tried alternative health treatments, participated in a clinical trial out of Stanford University and chemotherapy.
She told her son she was thinking of using Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, which allows terminally ill patients to get prescriptions for lethal drugs.
“She wanted to know how I felt about that, and I told her … ‘I just feel like that’s your decision, and if that’s a decision you want to make, I really respect that,’” Turlove said.
His mother took the drugs and died in late 2005.
In next month’s election, Washington voters will decide – by their vote on Initiative 1000 – whether to make their state the second to legalize physician-assisted suicide.
Turlove, 40, supports the measure. He says Oregon’s law worked well for his family, and he has had no second thoughts.
“My mom, myself, my dad, I think we all feel it’s just a real personal choice,” he said.
“I can understand why people wouldn’t want to do that, whether it’s because of their own morals, their own feelings about that, their own religion, whatever. I certainly respect that, but I do feel pretty strongly that it should be a personal decision.”
Stills, a psychologist, was diagnosed as terminally ill by two Oregon doctors who could have stopped the process, Turlove said.
Opponents of I-1000 say poor insurance coverage, feeling like a burden to your family and depression could influence people’s decisions to use assisted suicide, but Turlove said none of those was an issue for his mother.
“I think she certainly wished she could have lived longer … especially being 58. I think she felt like she was cheated on some years of her life that she should have had, and would have liked to see my daughter, her granddaughter, grow up,” he said. “That being said, she said she felt like she had come to terms with it and was at peace with it.”
Stills fits the profile of a majority of the 341 people who have used Oregon’s assisted-suicide law during the past decade: older cancer patients, most of them educated and with private insurance.
And like most of those people, it was the quality of life, not uncontrolled pain, that led to her decision, Turlove said.
In 2007, almost half of the people who received lethal drugs in Oregon didn’t take them.
After receiving her lethal drugs, Stills didn’t use them for months, Turlove said. That changed after her health deteriorated rapidly, and a hospice nurse estimated that she had two weeks to live.
At that point, Stills had no appetite, yellowing skin and fluid buildup in her abdomen, and she felt as if she had a permanent case of the flu, Turlove said.
“She could hardly get out; it was just really exhausting to her to get up and leave the house,” he said. “So that was the point where she decided there just wasn’t any point in living.”
Some I-1000 opponents have warned that if a loss of bodily control, such as an inability to walk or dress, is a reason for suicide, many people with disabilities could be candidates for it.
But Turlove said there’s a difference between a terminally ill cancer patient and someone who merely needs a wheelchair.
When his mother decided to end her life, she announced she would do so at 4 p.m. the next day, he said. She called friends and family in the morning, then said her goodbyes to her husband and only son, on her favorite spot on the couch.
“It’s just a few ounces of a liquid that she just drank. … She was hardly able to put the glass down before she was asleep. She was asleep within a minute, probably, of taking the medication. And within the next five minutes or so, her breathing slowed and stopped. So it was very peaceful, and it was very dignified and intentional,” Turlove said.
“Obviously, it was a very difficult thing to be there and watch my mom die like that. But I think about, well I don’t think it would have been any easier to watch her suffer for another two weeks.
“It was nice that in this way, because she got to be intentional about it, she got to be with my stepdad and me. … She was sort of able to end things on her own terms with the people she was closest to.”
State employee Duane French of Olympia, a quadriplegic since a diving accident at age 14, told a crowd of business people in Lacey recently that his grandfather once remarked that French would “be better off dead.”
French, now 54, disagrees. He has become an executive at a state agency in Olympia and works as an activist against assisted suicide. He says that Washington’s Initiative 1000, which voters will decide on in November’s election, poses a significant threat to people with disabilities.
He recently sat in a crowded cafe in downtown Olympia, a documentary film crew tracking him, and told The Olympian why he thinks I-1000 is a matter of discrimination.
“I think it poses a significant threat to people with disabilities. I want to do everything I can to educate the public about why I think it is important. I think it’s dangerous public policy,” French said.
Under I-1000, people with disabilities would not qualify for lethal drugs, nor would people with progressive but not fatal diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, which afflicts the initiative’s main sponsor, former Gov. Booth Gardner.
But French said the initiative undermines basic protections by making suicide acceptable under circumstances that are comparable to disabilities.
“When they talk about autonomy, usually what they talk about is independence, and bodily functions, and all those things that are associated with a person with a disability,” he said.
The most common reasons cited for using Oregon’s law are not pain or fear, but a loss of autonomy, the ability to enjoy life, and dignity. Each of those was cited by more than 80 percent of the 341 people who have used the law in the past 10 years.
Fifty-eight percent of patients who used assisted suicide in Oregon cited loss of bodily functions as a reason.
And though Washington’s law also would be called the Death with Dignity Act, French said there are well-known examples of cancer patients who choose to keep living as better examples of dignity.
“To me, Paul Newman is the epitome of dignity. He lived and died with dignity, and he didn’t need a lethal dose of medication to do it. Look at Senator Kennedy; he’s living and dying with dignity and he doesn’t need a lethal dose of medication,” French said. Newman died Sept. 26 after a long battle with cancer; Kennedy has brain cancer.
“They’ve corrupted the word ‘dignity,’ and I find it offensive,” French said. “Every person who has had a family member die with dignity without a lethal dose of medicine should feel resentful.”
To French, I-1000 is linked to the work of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who was jailed after he began assisting with suicides in Michigan about 15 years ago, and to larger national groups that support the assisted-suicide concept.
French founded a group called Not Dead Yet to battle against an assisted-suicide measure in Alaska when he worked there, and the group is opposing I-1000 this year.
He said groups that support assisted suicide want to make the conditions under which people with disabilities live a legal justification for killing.
“What’s not legal … is if you came to me and said, ‘Duane, financially I’m a wreck, my relationship is a wreck, and I just can’t go on anymore. My life is hard.’ And I said, ‘You know what, you’re right. What can I do to help?’”
Supporters of I-1000 say the initiative is a matter of individual choice, and those with six months or less to live should have final say in how they die.
French is a self-described liberal Democrat who has supported gay rights and plans to vote for Sen. Barack Obama in the presidential race. He said he is frustrated when fellow liberals embrace the individual choice argument over his concerns about discrimination.
If Initiative 1000 passes, Washington would become the second state to allow terminally ill adults to seek a prescription for drugs to help them kill themselves.
For Olympia employees Jonathan Turlove and Duane French, the issue isn’t just political, it’s personal. Turlove’s mother used Oregon’s assisted-suicide law to end her life after a 10-year battle with cancer, and he supports Washington’s proposed law. But French, who lost the use of his arms and legs 40 years ago, says the law poses a threat to him and others with disabilities.
Both talked to Olympian reporter Adam Wilson about how they think voters should approach the issue. These are their stories.