Grass roots end-of-life drive

June 5, 2008

By Jim Feehan

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Sue Beverly holds her petition seeking more signatures to place an assisted suicide initiative on the November ballot.  Photo by Jim Feehan

Newcastle woman looks to put end of life measure on November ballot

On the hottest day of the year to date, Newcastle resident Sue Beverly was gathering signatures for the so-called Death with Dignity initiative. A straw hat somewhat shielded her from the midday sun as she went about collecting signatures at Issaquah’s Pickering Barn last month.The next day, she was at it again, obtaining signatures at the Newcastle Fruit & Produce stand and at the Newcastle QFC.

Since March, she’s collected more than 1,000 signatures and is among the top 10 signature gatherers for Initiative 1000.

“Modern medicine can slow the course of deadly diseases and hold the victim in a state so diminished, it can scarcely be called life at all,” she said. “With death inevitable, those sufferers should have a choice of how they go. Some will choose to throw themselves on God’s mercy, and this measure doesn’t abridge that right. For those who choose a different path, I-1000 allows them to take responsibility for their own end.

As so many people have said to me, ‘You’d do it for your dog.'”

Campaigning for physician-assisted suicide is a family tradition for Beverly, she said. Her father, Robert

Means, was an early member of the right-to-die organization Hemlock Society and hosted its founder Derek Humphries when he visited Seattle.

Initiative 1000, which mirrors a 1997 Oregon law that has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, would allow terminally ill people to obtain lethal prescription drugs for ending their own lives.

Supporters need to collect about 225,000 valid voter signatures by July 3 to get the Washington Death with Dignity Initiative on the November ballot.

A slightly broader assisted-suicide measure, Initiative 119, made it onto the 1991 ballot, but failed with 46 percent of the vote. A simple majority of 50 percent is needed for an initiative to pass.

An opposition campaign has formed, the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide. The group objects to two provisions of the initiative:
• It does not require terminally ill patients to undergo a mental health evaluation before obtaining lethal drugs; even those with depression can seek assisted suicide.

• Family members of a patient need not be given notice of the patient’s intent.

Beverly, 64, has lived in Newcastle for the past 30 years. Dealing with the public is something she’s familiar with, having worked as a manager in the IRS office in downtown Seattle for 20 years.

About one in 10 people will stop and sign the petition, she said. Some don’t sign because they’re from out of state, or from a different country. Still, others say they’re too pressed for time or have their hands full with small children in tow.

Several people, primarily men, have said they plan to arrange their own deaths, Beverly said.

“The methods range from a gunshot in the deep woods to a sympathetic family doctor,” she said. “Several, even very elderly folks, have said, ‘I’m not ready to think about that yet.'”

All ages and every ethnic group have signed the petition. Signers run the gamut to bearded behemoths in plaid, flannel shirts to elegant, well-coiffed women wearing the latest fashion, Beverly said.

And many of them have stories to share.

“Some folks have tears in their eyes as they recount a recent experience with the prolonged demise of an elderly relative,” she said.

English Cartier, of Newcastle, signed Beverly’s petition outside the Newcastle Fruit & Produce stand.

“I have an elderly parent who moved to Oregon because of this,” he said, referring to the state’s doctor-assisted suicide law.

Sherry Tyler, of Newcastle, declined to sign the petition.

“I feel that what happens to you should be more of a natural process,” she said.

The initiative is often referred to as “Booth’s initiative” because former Gov. Booth Gardner, who is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, is the measure’s most outspoken supporter. He’s contributed about $120,000 to the campaign, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Meanwhile, Gov. Chris Gregoire opposes the measure and has said, “I find it on a personal level very, very difficult to support assisted suicide.”

While Gardner has provided some financial backing for the initiative drive, it’s volunteers like Beverly who have gathered signatures in less-than-ideal weather.

She said it’s emotionally exhausting to approach strangers every 30 seconds and repeat the same spiel.

“At the end of the day, it’s my back and knees that complain the loudest,” she said. “I would make a lousy panhandler.”



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