Voters in Washington State ponder Death With Dignity

Carla Axtman

One of the things that makes me proud of being an Oregonian is our Death With Dignity law.

The citizens of this state stood up against an onslaught of nefarious rightwing interests and decided to make legal the ability for Oregonians to exercise control over one of life's most personal and intimate decisions.

Despite all of the dire predictions of abuse of the law, the law appears to be working as designed by its proponents. That is, to give the terminally ill and in pain patients autonomy over their end of life decisions.

Yesterday Initiative 1000, Washington’s death with dignity initiative, qualified for the November ballot. Supporters turned in nearly 320,000 signatures, prompting the Secretary of State’s finding that they had “more than enough signatures” with a validity rate of nearly 90 percent.

The campaign released a video, featuring Booth Gardner, popular former Governor who happens to suffer from Parkinson's Disease. Gardner is a key activist for Initiative 1000.

So our friends to the north are now waging the battle we won here 10 years ago. Here's hoping our success leads to theirs.

  • jeff (unverified)

    Carla: ... decided to make legal the ability for Oregonians to exercise control over one of life's most personal and intimate decisions. JK: Very good Libertarian thoughts here.

    When can we expect you to generalize this to letting people determine, not just a few politically correct, but ALL of their “personal and intimate decisions”:

    Can I also assume that you believe people should have the right to use ANY recreational drugs? Can I also assume that you believe people should have the right to eat whatever food they want, including transfats, fagrau(sp)? Can I also assume that you believe people should have the right to have their property secure from the government taking it to give to Wall Mart? Can I also assume that you believe people should have the right to have their property secure from the government taking it by declaring it unbuildable. Can I also assume that you believe people should have the right to defend themselves with a gun?

    Thanks JK PS: You can learn more at and

  • verasoie (unverified)

    If this catches on, it will be further replicated in some NE states (e.g. Maine) and California, further eroding the Right's platform about "sanctity of life" issues.

    Because that is what this comes down to--- a proxy war on abortion and the use of that divisive issue as a wedge issue for the Right.

    If they lose here, that issue will become undermined and slowly lose its potency with their base.

    Not without a certain level of backlash, perhaps in some Midwestern or Plains states, but the argument is much more complex as these aren't "helpless" fetuses but sentient, autonomous adults making decisions about their lives, and people will actually have to grapple with the idea of letting people make decisions governing their own bodies (how radical!), including both reproduction and death.

    Expect this to be hard fought by the Right, and a losing effort for them. This is why Bush tried to have Ashcroft declare the Oregon law illegal--- they saw it as the beginning of a slippery slope leading to a changing electoral dynamic that weakens their strongest playcard, abortion.

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    Not sure why you'd think everyone should believe all of the things you list fall in the same category as "death with dignity" just because you do.

    Just fyi, and not intending anything invidious, you're looking for foie gras, "liver fat", short for påté de foie gras (French), i.e. a spread made from chopped livers of geese, which is produced under industrial zooculture by force-feeding geese to make their livers larger. I am not sure if that is true of traditional ways of making it.

    May I assume that even as a libertarian you think there are limits to individual freedom to abuse and be cruel to animals? There is what I believe to be a legitimate debate about where to draw lines.

    Personally I don't find current drug policies particularly coherent or rational, but I also do believe that there is such a thing as addiction, and thus a distinction to be made between a right to use "recreational drugs" and a right to profit from selling addictive substances. I don't claim to have a very coherent view of all this.

    Because of being a historian and having studied the property and land-tenure systems of a number of pre-capitalist societies in both Europe and Africa, I have a strong view that capitalist private property is not in any sense "natural," but a rather specific historical social & legal artifice whose development in Europe and the Euro-diaspora is close to unique if not unique (especially with respect to land), though obviously of immense historical importance. Consequently I also don't regard it as an absolute right, but as a form of social relationship that is properly and legitimately subject to regulation in terms of its consequences not only for the individual owner but for other individuals affected by its use, since it does not exist apart from its institution in law. There are two levels to this -- uses of property that infringe on the property rights of others, and uses of property that infringe on the conditions of life for others.

    To go to an extreme case that actually is quite interesting from the point of view of philosophies of liberty, do you believe that there can be legitimate contracts of self-enslavement and/or legitimate property in human beings? James Oakes, in Slavery and Freedom, makes a very interesting historical analysis of the contradictions for the development of liberal capitalism in the antebellum United States between the liberal principle of right to private property, which slave-owners argued would be violated by abolition of slavery, and the liberal principle of universal individual autonomy and responsibility, on which free contract doctrine is based, with which slavery as an institution ultimately was incompatible.

    Of course, beyond such issues, I have a belief in mutual social obligations that I suppose you don't share, deriving ultimately I suppose from differing views of human nature.

    You of course are free to label any disagreements with you on subjects such as these as "political correctness," but that is an evasion of engagement with the ideas, and also an unwarranted imputation of assumed motives to persons you don't know.

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    OMG I love it when intelligence combines with excellent writing skills to bring coherence back to the argument. Thank you Chris.:)

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    I agree, this is going to be one issue to watch closely in terms of what our neighbors to the north do. My guess is with a large turnout, this measure will pass. Then we'll have to see if the same legal challanges are made that kept Oregon's law in limbo for years.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)

    Chris Lowe:

    James Oakes, in Slavery and Freedom, makes a very interesting historical analysis of the contradictions for the development of liberal capitalism in the antebellum United States between the liberal principle of right to private property, which slave-owners argued would be violated by abolition of slavery

    Bob T:

    They were wrong, since rights start with the individual, and no individual could thus be owned against his will.

    I always get a kick out of the free market haters citing this as an example of capitalism. Is it the mere fact of ownership that makes it so? Or that a market price for slaves is involved rather than a price fixed by the State? If this is so, does that mean that a rabid Communist cannot own anything, not even a toothpick, lest he be classified as a practicing capitalist? As for supply and demand, even the most hardened Communist government might find itself giving another government something in return for a desired raw material. That proves nothing.

    You are really grasping here and making one of the more misguided and fundamental errors people make regarding slavery. If slavery was run on market principles, that only proves that you are confusing market forces with a market economy. A free market system is more than just an economic system. One can take part in it by living like a hermit in a self-made cabin, growing and hunting all that he needs. The fact that this person is left alone to do so is part of the system, for a free market society implies that no force or fraud be used, and in the case of slavery there's a massive violation of force right from the get-go in that a slave was prohibited from owning himself, and this had force behind it. Nothing free market-like with that, though laws of supply and demand may play a part in the slave trade itself. But what does that prove? Nothing. Don't confuse forces with the principles. Lenin had a need for skilled craftsmen in the early 20's, and invited foreigners with such skills to relocate to the Soviet Union in exchange for some form of payment. Did that make it a free market economy, or did that just mean that even a very anti-free market system has a need for one thing or another, and might have to pay a price for it?

    Now, this slavery thing is interesting because many people with a coloring book view of the free enterprise system claim over and over again that slavery is very much a result of free market capitalism in that the strong get their way and can trade in any commodity. I've explained why this is bogus already, but what these coloring book critics don't want to admit or don't realize is that slavery was actually part of the system they approve of, namely, a paternalistic, anti-free market, anti-individualist society.

    In fact, you ought to take a look at what was written in the ante-bellum period for it'll curl your hair, such as the one about slavery being the "beau ideal" of communism. Yes, that's from George Fitzhugh (1806-1881), a Virginia lawyer, free-market hater, member of a big slave-owning family, and pro-slavery writer who wrote the following passages in "Sociology for the South" in 1854 (starting with the usual setting-the-stage passages):

    "France and the Northern States of our Union have alone fully and fairly tried the experiment of a social organization founded upon universal liberty and equality of rights....In France and our Northern States the experiment has already failed.

    "...the political economists and the advocates of liberty and equality propose to enhance the well being of man by trammeling his conduct as little as possible, and encouraging what they call FREE COMPETITION [emphasis in original]. Now, free competition is but another name for liberty and equality.

    "The same law of nature which enables and impels the stronger race to oppress and exterminate the weaker, is constantly at work in the bosom of every society, between its stronger and weaker members.
    Liberty and equality rather encourage than restrict this law in its deadly operation. A Northern gentleman...once told us that his only objection to domestic slavery was, that it would perpetuate an inferior race, who, under the influence of free trade and free competition, would otherwise disappear from the earth.

    "A half million died of hunger in one year in Ireland - they died because in the eye of the law they were the equals, and liberty had made them the enemies, of their landlords and employers. Had they been vassals or serfs, they would have been beloved, cherished, and taken care of by those same landlords and employers. Slaves never die of hunger, scarcely ever feel want.

    "Self-interest makes the employer and free laborer enemies....The competition among laborers to get employment begets an intestine war.....There is but one remedy for this evil, so inherent in a free society, and that is, to identify the interests of the weak and the strong, the poor and the rich. Domestic Slavery does this far better than any other institution.

    "One of the wildest sects of Communists in France proposes not only to hold all property in common, but to divide the profits, not according to each man's input and labor, but according to each man's wants.
    Now this is precisely the system of domestic slavery with us. We provide for each slave, in old age and in infancy, in sickness and in health, not according to his labor, but according to his wants. The master's wants are more costly and refined, and he therefore gets a larger share of the profits. A Southern farm is the beau ideal of Communism; it is a joint concern, in which the slave consumes more than the master....and is far happier, because although the concern may fail, he is always sure of a support; he is only transferred to another master to participate in the profits of another concern; he marries when he pleases, because he knows he will have to work no more with a family than without one, and whether he live or die, the family will be taken care of.

    "There is no rivalry, no competition to get employment among slaves, as among free laborers....[Slaves] have no dread of the future - no fear of want."

    There ya go, Chris.

    Anyway, I support so-called Death with Dignity laws but see them for what they really are: laws that allow physicians to help terminally sick people to commit suicide without fear of being prosecuted for murder. That's really not the same thing as a right to commit suicide. If there is such a right, it ought to be a right even if one if hardly sick at all, except sick of life perhaps. Without that right, then you are owned by someone or something else. Right?

    Bob Tiernan

  • mlw (unverified)

    If you look at the numbers of people who get the prescription, only about 50-60% actually take it. This mirrors that the primary concern for most patients is the loss of autonomy. Put another way, having lost almost everything, what most people in this situation want most is simply to have a choice. See the most recent report here. It is the height of paternalism to claim, as opponents do, that the State has a greater interest in this decision than the individual.

    There is also substantial evidence that this simply provides a legal means for doing what was previously done illegally. Personally, I believe that, by providing a process that addresses the patient's condition in some rational way and provides the person with a choice, Death with Dignity probably decreased the actual incidence of voluntary termination of life.

    The collateral effects have also been very positive. Although Death with Dignity really has nothing to do with palliative care, it has both promoted the provision of palliative care and made pain management specialists substantially more likely to prescribe appropriately high levels of pain medication at the end of life. Where before they felt like they might be accused of deliberately trying to kill the patient, now they feel more comfortable that their medical decisions to provide effective pain control will not be second guessed.

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    Bob, you're projecting. If you read what I read, I was not saying slavery is inherently capitalist; it isn't. Actually what I wrote is much closer to the opposite. My views of the nature of slavery and its relationship to capitalism are much more complex and just don't fit your stereotype of what "free market haters" think. All of these issues were central foci of my graduate studies in history; comparative slavery was one of my Ph.D. candidacy exam fields.

    Fitzhugh was an interesting thinker but also an atypical ideologue. And before taking any of his other claims very seriously, you might want to consider whether his portrayal of happy, carefree slaves has the least plausibility. What he says about marriage is a flat out lie -- slave marriages had no legal standing, and slave families were broken up regularly by owners' whims, by creditors forcing sales to collect debts, and by owners' deaths.

    There's a lot more to say about this and about the rather fantastical elements of your theoretical claims that have little relationship to empirical reality. If you think private property beyond personal goods was established without huge amounts of force and fraud, usually backed by state power, you're dreaming. But I don't want to hijack Carla's thread further. If you want to pursue this further elsewhere, e-mail me a clowe187 [at] & I'll e-mail you back from my main e-mail account.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    Carla, again you capture the meaning with your prose. In keeping with your recent Rock references I would suggest (You can't always get what you want, but find sometimes, ya get what you need"

    I watched my father in law suffer for 3 years with congestive heart failure. He wanted to come out to Oregon but was too sick to travel. The family all went through those last terrible 4-5 months with him.

    This is perhaps the ultimate modern states rights initiative. Thanks to the Ashcroft and Gonzales goons, the case has been decided by our Supreme Court. It clearly is no longer a federal issue.

    Here is my best and fondest hopes for a successful I-1000 turnout this November.

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    I could not have come up with a more apt music reference myself. Well done.

    My personal politics do carry a rather wide libertarian streak--especially on issues of individual autonomy. This issue is one in which I've attempted to put myself in the shoes of those in pain, terminally ill and fully capable of making an informed decision. I can't square why the law should be otherwise with my own morality.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)

    Kurt Chapman:

    This is perhaps the ultimate modern states rights initiative. Thanks to the Ashcroft and Gonzales goons, the case has been decided by our Supreme Court. It clearly is no longer a federal issue.

    Bob T:

    It (and the medical mj issue) became Federal issues thanks to Federal drug laws, like them or not. We lucked out in this ruling but it needs to be pointed out that so long as we have Federal drug laws anything that has anything to do with them can face Federal regulations even if politically driven. Although you don't want to hear it, this is a consequence of the progressive era when so many things were centralized due to a lack of trust in state governments and state populations - it was easier to get agenda items as national policy by, of course, nationalizing them. Some of us have been trying to reverse that ever since. At least the medical mj and death with dignity issues have given progressives a much needed lesson in decentralization. On the other hand, the downside is that decades of pooh-poohing property rights has led to the Kelp decision.

    Bob Tiernan

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    I might have more sympathy with your argument if it weren't for the close association of "states' rights" with the history of slavery, "redemption"/race & class disfranchisement, and Jim Crow. And yes, I know that it was Democrats who were responsible for most of that, although many of them became today's Republicans, or the mentors of the younger ones, following Nixon's "Southern Strategy."

    Actually "Progressive Era" self-styled progressives mostly worked at the state level.

    I am curious if you are a big "L" or a small "l" libertarian, and whether you argue this point with other conservatives when they want to do things like restrict the rights of states to impose tougher standards of regulation than those of the federal government?


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