OLYMPIA, WASH. -- State Sen. Ray Moore's mother lived to age 92. She was a thoughtful, independent woman and was still cutting tight corners in her Buick Wildcat a month before her death of cancer in 1979.
But if she had had the opportunity to cut short her last painful weeks, she would have done so, Moore said. Now her son, 79, a Democrat from Seattle, has joined a movement to pass the world's first law allowing doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill.
Mary Jo Kahler, executive director of Human Life of Washington, the state's leading antiabortion group, also knows someone near death. An AIDS patient called, telling her that he faced only pain and despair and supported the same measure favored by Moore -- the "Death with Dignity" Initiative 119 scheduled for the state ballot here in November.
But when Kahler helped to put the man in touch with counselors and a church equipped to answer his questions and meet his spiritual needs, his dark mood lifted. He called back to say he wanted to let death come naturally and asked Initiative 119 sponsors to take his name off their mailing list.
With such emotion on both sides and a lengthy and expensive campaign in the offing, Washington state is poised yet again to leap into the political and legal unknown, reaffirming its long tradition of social experimentation.
In 1970, the state became one of the first to approve a liberalized abortion law, the beginning of a generational change that has resulted in clinical abortion of one-third of all pregnancies in the United States.
This year, amid the Initiative 119 battle about how to treat the terminally ill, the state also is expected to vote on Initiative 120, which would loosen abortion restrictions further in an attempt to stave off a possible Supreme Court assault on abortion rights.
That would force Human Life of Washington to wage two separate campaigns. A single campaign against Initiatives 119 and 120 was rejected, Kahler said, adding, "We understand the philosophical underpinnings of the two are clearly related, but in the public's mind that connection may not be there."
Ralph Mero, president of the state's Hemlock Society, a national advocate of euthanasia and a major sponsor of 119, said the initiative has been received enthusiastically by many people who have seen relatives and friends suffer physically and financially in their last months of life. Among its supporters are many whom he has counseled as a Unitarian minister, he said.
Moore said "there is a growing aggravation with the sights and smells of hospitals and nursing homes. There is a growing irritation with the medical profession. There are a lot of people who really believe that the doctors are benefiting indecently in the last six months of people's lives."
Initiative 119 has two major provisions. The first, a relatively uncontroversial clarification of the state's 1979 Natural Death Act, allows doctors in consultation with relatives to halt food and water for patients in irreversible comas.
The second part of the initiative would create a medical procedure called "aid-in-dying."
It allows a physician to administer a lethal dose of morphine or use another humane method to cause the death of any terminally ill patient capable of requesting in writing that it be done. The patient would have to be conscious, mentally competent and have two physicians assert he or she had no more than six months to live.
Advocates said the only place where such a procedure is permitted is the Netherlands whose courts have voided a law prohibiting euthanasia.
Critics have charged that many state voters, who indicated more than 60 percent support for such a measure in a poll last year, do not understand that it involves state-sanctioned suicide.
But Washington Citizens for Death with Dignity, the coalition that drafted the measure, collected 223,000 signatures, 73,000 more than needed to put Initiative 119 on the ballot. "This is the most enthusiastic, dedicated, willing group of volunteers I have ever seen," said Karen Cooper, the organization's executive director.
The organization has received strong support from senior citizens, AIDS activists and social workers specializing in terminal cases. Cooper said that, while leaders of the hospice movement, which provides special care for the dying, oppose Initiative 119, many hospice workers support it. "I know one hospice worker helping us who knows four patients who committed violent suicides recently," Cooper said. "One jumped off a bridge."
Under state law, the legislature could approve Initiative 119, eliminating need for a vote, but that is not considered likely. Instead, the legislators are considering an alternative initiative, drafted by Republican state Rep. Fred May and others, that would fortify the existing statute covering comatose patients. If put on the ballot, it might weaken support for Initiative 119 because voters would have to choose one, the other or neither.
The state medical association, which supports May's alternative, and the Washington State Catholic Conference have come out against Initiative 119. All opponents of the proposal have expressed strong objection to the thought of physicians killing patients.
Kahler said her group is concerned that the initiative, although it gives doctors a right to refuse an aid-in-dying case, would lead to laws that would force some health workers to choose between their consciences or their jobs in cases involving euthanasia.
Aid-in-dying, she contended, also would give the sick and elderly the impression that they no longer were wanted and push organized medicine toward a tragic shortcut for patients who need only more emotional and spiritual support to ease their way toward death.
"We need to ask the fundamental question," Kahler said. "What are we doing?"