Ex-governor backs initiative to legalize assisted suicide

OLYMPIA — Former Gov. Booth Gardner said Monday night he'll head up an effort to legalize assisted suicide in Washington state through a citizens initiative.

Gardner, who did not offer details, made the announcement as he was accepting an award at an Olympia dinner honoring TVW, the cable channel that covers state government. He has been involved with TVW since it was founded.

Gardner, 69, who has Parkinson's disease, also told the crowd that he will undergo brain surgery to try to reverse the neurological damage of the disease.

The announcement of the initiative effort, probably aimed at the 2008 ballot, follows last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding Oregon's physician-assisted-suicide law. The court decision prompted right-to-die supporters in Washington state to immediately predict a push for a similar law here.

Washington voters in 1991 narrowly rejected Initiative 119, which would have allowed doctors to write prescriptions to hasten death but, unlike Oregon's law, would also have allowed them to administer lethal injections to terminally ill patients who aren't able to take the medications on their own. The details of the initiative Gardner plans to head up were not available Monday night.

Oregon's law allows doctors to write prescriptions for patients, who must administer the drugs themselves.

Gardner had symptoms of Parkinson's during his final year in office, which was 1992, and has been taking the maximum amount of medication to control the symptoms.

According to The Associated Press, Gardner said he plans to have innovative brain surgery in a few weeks to implant a type of pacemaker. He said doctors tell him he has about 8 percent of normal control and that the surgery should give him at least five productive years of life, with half the medication.

Gardner said he knew the issue would be unpopular among some, but said, "This is how I feel."

"I don't know if I'll make it, but I'm going to make that effort," he said of the initiative.

He said that in his life he has always made the tough choices for himself, even as a child deciding whether to study hard. He thinks he should be allowed to make the tough calls at life's end as well.

Gardner, a Democrat, served as governor from 1985 to 1993. Since then, he has kept a low profile as he has dealt with the disease. This year he also has been active in efforts to reform the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

A bill in the Legislature, now before a Senate committee, would allow terminally ill patients to request medication from a doctor that they could use to end their lives.

The measure also includes safeguards, similar to Oregon's, to ensure, among other things, that the requests are voluntary and that patients provide informed consent.

Seattle Times staff reporter Carol M. Ostrom and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

David Postman: 360-236-8267 or dpostman@seattletimes.com