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Anatomy of a Campaign: Washington’s Initiative 1000

July 14, 2008

By Kathie Durbin, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

Jul. 13–In February 2006, a month after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Oregon Death With Dignity Act, right-to-die activists from Seattle and Portland met at an east Vancouver hotel to lay the groundwork for a Washington initiative modeled on the Oregon law.

“Everybody agreed that we needed our friends and colleagues from Oregon,” said Dr. Tom Preston, the retired Seattle cardiologist who organized the meeting. Preston founded Washington Compassion in Dying in 1993, two years after the first Washington initiative went down in defeat.

The Portland-based Death With Dignity National Center was thinking along the same lines. As the Oregon Right to Die Political Action Committee, it had led the successful campaign to defeat the Oregon repeal effort.

The PAC later merged with the National Center, whose lawyers and lobbyists fought efforts by Congress and the Bush administration to overturn the law.

“In our minds, Washington was the logical next state,” said Peg Sandeen, the center’s executive director. “People in Washington could see that no one was rushing to Oregon to die.”

The states are similar demographically. Both have large numbers of independent voters. “And there is the same sort of distaste for government intervention in health care decisions” in both states, she said.

Preston and other members of Compassion in Dying had helped the Oregon group wage its political campaign. Now it was payback time. “They wanted our political strategy and our financial resources,” Sandeen recalled. “Our board said, ‘Absolutely.’ It has always been our mission to get other state laws passed.’”

And this year, she said, the time is right.

“I don’t want to call it a perfect storm, but it kind of is — an election year, high turnout, a lot of independents, a strong grass-roots organization, a former governor and his last hurrah.”

While these behind-the-scenes efforts were under way, former Gov. Booth Gardner, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, announced that he would campaign for a right-to-die initiative in Washington. But what Gardner had in mind initially was not a carbon copy of the Oregon law.

The former governor wanted a law that would allow him and others with Parkinson’s, a nonterminal illness, to end their lives at a time of their choosing if their suffering became unbearable.

The Oregon law allows doctors to prescribe lethal doses of barbiturates only for those who have six months or less to live.

Preston said he and others explained to Gardner that the Oregon law, with its safeguards, represented good politics as well as good medicine.

“If someone who wasn’t terminally ill could use the law, I would vote against it,” Preston said. “It would lead to abuses.”

Ultimately, Gardner agreed to campaign for a law nearly identical to Oregon’s, though it would not benefit him personally. He has called the campaign a “first step” toward passage of a more far-reaching law one day.

“I wish we could do a more liberal law, but we’re going to pattern it after the Oregon law because it passed,” Gardner told a gathering in Everett last year, as described in a cover story in the Dec. 2, 2007, New York Times Magazine. “We’re not going to go farther than that now.”

The campaign to put Initiative 1000 on the ballot gathered more than 320,000 signatures.

With the signature drive over, the campaigns for and against I-1000 now turn to raising money.

As of June 11, Yes on 1-1000 had raised nearly $1.2 million, including in-kind contributions — more than half from out-of-state donors and organizations. About $440,000 came from two Oregon advocacy groups, Oregon Compassion and Choices and the Death With Dignity National Center. Gardner has given $120,000 to the campaign so far.

The opposition campaign, Coalition Against Assisted Suicide, had raised $95,600, mostly from Washington donors.

Finding out who is giving how much has been a challenge. Human Life of Washington, which opposes the initiative, went to court in May to press its argument that it has a constitutional right to run radio ads about the issue of physician-assisted suicide without disclosing its donors under state public campaign disclosure laws.

Last Wednesday, a U.S. District Court rejected its argument and ordered the group to reveal its out-of-state donors.

On the other side, Death With Dignity National Center and Compassion and Choices Oregon insist that they are exempt from identifying their donors because they were formed for purposes other than campaigning in favor of the Washington initiative.

“Our position,” said Sandeen, “is that we have followed every Washington law.”

Although proponents of Washington Death with Dignity have raised far more money to date, Sandeen expects the Catholic Church to contribute as much as $6 million to the campaign to defeat the measure.

The church has contributed more than $9 million in six right-to-die initiative campaigns since 1991. It provided nearly two-thirds of the funding to defeat the first Washington initiative in 1991, nearly 60 percent to oppose the Oregon measure in 1994, and nearly three-quarters of the money spent to try to repeal the Oregon law in 1997.

“They will come in at the end, when the scary ads will come on television,” Sandeen said. “This is all about raising money now. In-state, out-of-state, it all comes down to the battle on TV.”

Because Clark County is in the expensive Portland media market, voters here may not have a ringside seat for that battle.

Polls show public opinion is running in favor of granting people the right to die, not only in Washington but nationwide.

In 1998, nearly three-quarters of respondents in a national poll agreed that “people in the final stages of a terminal disease that are suffering and in pain should have the right to get help from their doctor to end life, if they so choose.”

“This issue has popular support,” Sandeen said. “People from all over the country have seen a loved one facing a prolonged death. I think people give money because it’s profoundly personal. They want it in their state.”

Still, that’s no guarantee that I-1000 is headed for an easy victory, said Oregon attorney Eli Stutsman, who led the legal team that defended the Oregon law before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“A grass-roots campaign is defenseless against the politically experienced, well-organized and well-funded opponents of Death with Dignity reform,” Stutsman wrote in a book about the campaign. “Popular support for Death with Dignity reform is no substitute for political money, skill and organizing.”

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

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