"People should have as much control as is reasonable," Houff says, adding, "I've been concerned with 'death with dignity' issues for many, many years."
So has Chris Carlson, but he doesn't use the phrase, "death with dignity." He prefers the term "assisted suicide." He worries that if the government gets in the business of shortening lives, there will be abuse -- as well as cases of frightened people ending their lives for the wrong reasons. In 2005, Carlson was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and told that he might have only six months to live. Three years later, he's still kicking, and his cancer is "dormant."
"It's terminal. It's incurable, but the fundamental flaw is in telling anybody that they've got less than six months to live," says Carlson, a public affairs consultant in Spokane and chair of the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide. "It creates a situation in which people are encouraged prematurely to give up hope and to give up on life."
Washington state has become the latest battleground over the issue of assisted suicide, and the fight is likely just starting. Supporters of Initiative 1000 -- a measure allowing doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients given less than six months to live -- have until July 3 to collect about 225,000 signatures to put it on the November ballot. Organizers won't say exactly how many signatures they already have collected, but they've raised more than $1 million -- enough, organizers and opponents believe, for a successful signature drive.
"We are on track to meet our goals," says Anne Martens, spokeswoman for the Yes on 1000 campaign. "We still have a lot of work to do. We're pushing to get a healthy cushion. We're going to have signature gatherers out in every fair and farmers market you can think of."
The most prominent spokesman for the "Washington Death With Dignity Act" has been former Washington governor, Booth Gardner, 71, who has declared that it's his "final campaign." Gardner has Parkinson's disease, which, because it's not a terminal disease, wouldn't qualify him under the proposed law. It has, however, made him sensitive to end-of-life issues.
"There are people like me everywhere who are coping with pain -- they know that their next step is death," Gardner recently told The Los Angeles Times. "When death is inevitable, we shouldn't force people to endure agonizing suffering if we don't have to.... It's about autonomy, personal choice and respect. I was in control of my life. I should be allowed to be in control of my death."
But as further proof of how divisive the issue is, Gardner's own 46-year-old son has said he opposes Initiative 1000. Carlson, too, has also served as interesting foil to Gardner because, in addition to cancer, he has Parkinson's -- just like Gardner. Carlson dismisses Gardner's "pain argument."
"Pain can be managed for just about anything," Carlson says. "To conjure up a vision of somebody in agony ... is bogus."
Tell that to Bill Houff, who sat next to dying people who sought nothing more than relief. Houff, a volunteer who's been collecting signatures, says there are safeguards in place to ensure that only people of sound mind are eligible under the proposed law. "I think it's important to pay attention to the person making the request and make sure they aren't operating out of an imbalance."
Oregon is the only state with an assisted suicide law and Initiative 1000 is modeled after it. Someone requesting the fatal prescription must make two oral requests, 15 days apart, and submit a written request witnessed by two people (one of whom is not an heir, an attending doctor or associated with a care facility). Two doctors would have to agree that the patient was mentally competent and had a terminal disease giving him or her six months or less to live. Doctors could only prescribe the drugs; they could not administer them. Patients would have to do that themselves.
Passed in 1994, the Oregon law took effect in 1997. In the following decade, 341 people died under the act, reports state.
Not surprisingly, opponents of the law say doctors may have simply underreported the figures, suggesting that the numbers might be notably higher.