Quality of life-and death- becomes a ballot issue

October 31, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

SEATTLE -- In the final months of his life, 71-year-old cancer patient John Patrick Nugent has become an overnight celebrity in the Pacific Northwest.

"When my wife and I walked into a restaurant last weekend, everybody in the place clapped," mused the retired Seattle retailer, who was recently given less than a year to live.

Pat Nugent's unlikely fame is a direct result of one of the most extraordinary campaigns of this or any election year: a drive to make Washington state the first place in the world to legalize doctor-assisted suicide.

If the measure is approved by the voters Tuesday, as many here expect, doctors will be authorized to give terminally ill patients a lethal injection or an overdose of oral medication on request.

The fierce debate over the right-to-die initiative has invaded living rooms across the state through a series of searing television ads by both sides. They include emotional testimonials from ordinary patients such as Mr. Nugent, a proponent of Initiative 119, or "Death with Dignity," as its backers call it.

"I have terminal cancer," a Seattle woman, Susan Baron, says in one commercial, her head resting against a pillow. "To endure the pain is absolute hell. At the end, I want a choice . . . to die on my own terms, in a dignified manner."

The ads promoting Initiative 119 frame the issue in terms of an individual's "right to choose," the same political catch phrase used by abortion-rights groups. The commercials were produced the Washington, D.C., media consulting firm of Greer, Margolis, Mitchell, Grunwald and Associates, which has also employed the abortion-rights issue in ads for Democratic candidates.

In a 30-second spot for the other side, William A. Mahoney of Yakima, Wash., describes in a shaky voice how he was told he "only had a couple weeks to live" -- four years ago.

Initiative 119, he says, "is more or less of a right to kill," adding that when the end seemed near in 1987, "I probably had a different opinion."

Opponents warn that Initiative 119 would turn doctors into murderers and open the door to a host of potentially tragic consequences. Elderly patients or those with little money might feel pressured to end their lives in order to relieve survivors of some of the emotional and financial burden, for example.

The proposal "deeply evades the moral structure of our society by depriving us of our social responsibility for the gift of life," the Most Rev. Thomas J. Murphy, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Seattle, wrote this week in the Seattle Times. The Catholic Church is providing the largest amount of money for the opposition campaign, which is also backed by the state medical association, fundamentalist Protestant churches and anti-abortion groups.

Supporters say Initiative 119 would offer a strictly voluntary option, a way for patients to gain the upper hand over doctors in the final days of their lives. It is, they maintain, a necessary response to a medical world in which machines often keep terminally ill patients alive against their will, forcing them to endure a painful, lingering death.

Among those backing the initiative are the Unitarian Church, the United Methodist Church of the Pacific Northwest, the Gray Panthers and various liberal, Democratic, libertarian and gay organizations.

The Washington euthanasia initiative is the newest phase in a power struggle over medical treatment that has seen individuals become increasingly assertive in recent years -- through the use of living wills, for instance. It also comes at a time of unprecedented national attention to the subject of suicide for the terminally ill.

A suicide manual, "Final Exit," has been the nation's best-selling "how to" book for weeks. Its author, Derek Humphry, is director of the Hemlock Society, whose Washington state chapter started the grass-roots effort that put Initiative 119 on the Nov. 5 ballot and has been the largest single source of funds in the campaign for passage.

Voters here are being asked to decide the issue of mercy killing in the immediate aftermath of the latest national furor over

pathologist Jack Kevorkian, whose suicide devices helped two women kill themselves in Michigan last week.

Backers of Initiative 119 say those doctor-assisted suicides would not have been allowed under the Washington plan, which would only apply to patients with illnesses that are expected to result in death within six months.

However, campaign director Karen Cooper, a Seattle political consultant, acknowledges that the Kevorkian controversy could hurt the effort to pass Initiative 119, which is supported by a majority of Washington voters, according to polls.

No matter which way the statewide vote goes next week, the debate won't stop here. Efforts are already under way to put a similar measure on the ballot in California next year.

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