Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Public affairs professional dedicates his time and talents to fight against physician-assisted suicide
by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register
(From the Sept. 11, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
Chris Carlson, a parishioner at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane, is voluntary chair of a coalition fighting against Initiative 1000 – physician-assisted suicide. (IR photo by Deacon Eric Meisfjord)
Business is business.
Except when it’s personal.
Chris Carlson, a parishioner at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane, is one of the founding partners of what is now called Gallatin Public Affairs, a national public relations firm working as strategists, lobbyists, communicators, researchers, and organizers. He has spent a lifetime as a communications professional, as a teacher, a journalist, a government spokesman, and public policy advocate.
He now brings a lifetime of experience and talent to bear on an issue which he sees as a deeply disturbing, and deeply wrong, shift in public attitude and Washington State law.
Initiative 1000 will be on the ballots in Washington State this year. The measure’s official title is “The Washington Death with Dignity Act,” the purpose of which is to put in place a legal means by which individuals can request from a physician “medication to end life in a humane and dignified manner.”
In other words, physician-assisted suicide.
Besides his day job, Carlson serves as the voluntary chair of the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide. The group formed when it became clear that the initiative was taking hold and “was something that had to be taken seriously,” Carlson said in an interview in his Gallatin offices.
The tipoff was in December of last year, when the New York Times Magazine featured a cover story on former Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, the lead proponent of the Assisted Suicide measure. “You don’t just get a story on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Someone had been working at it” for some time.
After a few phone calls, Carlson learned that a loose coalition of medical personnel and others were starting to band together in opposition to the initiative.
Those opposing the initiative are clearly the underdogs in a number of ways. Media attention has focused favorably on proponents of the measure. Despite initiative backers who have tried to raise the specter of a manipulative Catholic Church throwing vast financial resources into the battle, “we’ve been horribly outspent,” said Carlson. Backers of the initiative have spent more than $1 million for paid signature gatherers alone, said Carlson. The Washington State bishops have begun trying to raise money to fund an educational campaign regarding the inherent wrong of the initiative, but it’s an uphill battle.
Nevertheless, expertise has counted for a great deal so far.
When Gov. Gardner and others filed the ballot title, the opposition coalition was there as well, represented by “two doctors and a leader of a group of disabled people,” which calls itself “Not Dead Yet.”
After the former governor made his announcement, “the press turned to the two female doctors and the disabled person” speaking against the initiative, and who “right away make it clear that the initiative is flawed and there was going to be strong opposition to it.”
Another victory came in terms of press relations, said Carlson.
The semantics used by those backing the initiative have been carefully chosen: “compassion in choices,” “death with dignity.” The language is gentler than the reality: suicide.
The Associated Press studied the issue in terms of terminology. “They concluded that somebody taking a lethal dose of barbiturates is killing themselves,” said Carlson. Physician-assisted suicide.
In his efforts, Carlson joins the Washington State Catholic Conference and other groups who find Initiative 1000 to be flawed morally, socially, legally, and ethically.
The Washington State Catholic Conference is issuing educational materials and statements in opposition to I-1000.
“This initiative is contrary to Catholic teaching that life is sacred and that god alone is the true sovereign over life,” says the statement posted on the WSCC web site (http://www.thewscc.org). “Human dignity and worth are simply innate to our relationship to God and not dependent on our social usefulness. As Catholics we believe that a caring society assists persons with terminal illnesses, and their loved ones, to live as fully as possible the time they have left together.”
Physician-assisted suicide plays to people’s fears: fear of dying in pain, fear of dying alone. Fear that family, friends, society will somehow fail them at the end of their natural life.
In his column titled “Everything is grace” (IR 8/21/08), Bishop Skylstad wrote, “Purposely taking one’s life to short-circuit the natural process of approaching death is more than the loss of a life: it is lost inspiration and lost grace. We are all interconnected as God’s family….
“We are all companions on the journey,” the bishop wrote. “There is no excuse for allowing any person approaching death to feel lonely and unappreciated. That final companionship should be one of the special missions of our parish communities.”
The initiative also encourages despair in those who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Again, for Carlson, it’s even more personal.
“It’s very personal,” he said. He calls himself “a walking, living example of one of the major flaws” of Initiative 1000.
“The initiative basically says that if a physician says that you have less than six months to live, you can avail yourself of this prescription” that will allow the patient to commit suicide. “It alleges there are safeguards, and yadda yadda yadda.
“Like Booth Gardner, I have Parkinson’s,” Carlson said. “Parkinson’s is not considered a fatal disease. Unlike Gardner, in November 2005 I was diagnosed” with a rare form of terminal cancer, almost always incurable, almost always quickly fatal – “you’re dead within six months,” he said.
“Well, I’m over two years past that six month point.”
The initiative, he said, “encourages people to premature conclude their life is over with and to give up hope. That’s just wrong.”
When he was diagnosed, he researched possible treatment options. One cancer specialty center refused to see him. “They thought it was hopeless,” he grins, telling the story.
“I will admit that anybody who has a terminal diagnosis, the natural reaction is, you get depressed. At that point I was saying, ‘I am in deep, deep trouble.’”
But other treatment had its effect. The battle was long and arduous. The treatment to battle the cancer also took a heavy toll on the rest of his body. But he lived, to continue to “walk this good green Earth.”
“In the meantime, I’ve seen a granddaughter born, I’ve been able to continue my treks into Hell’s canyon, continue to work, continue to enjoy a baseball game,” where, incidentally, he was headed after this interview, “and yet, I can’t help thinking that had that option been there” for physician-assisted suicide, “I know I never would have taken that option, that’s not in my constitutional makeup – it goes against my beliefs, my grain – but I can see where other people, especially younger people –
“Younger people get cancer, too,” he said. “And it’s not too far-fetched to imagine a 20-year-old who is told by his or her doctor that they have less than six months to live. I’d submit to you that very few people that age have the maturity to really handle that and put it in context. It’s very easy for me to see where a young person says, ‘I’ll spare Mom and Dad the agony of watching me slowly die, and I’ll spare them the expense.” And combined with existing law, Initiative 1000 would not mandate consultation with family. “Nor does the initiative mandate a psychiatric or psychological evaluation,” said Carlson. Under the initiative, the young person could choose suicide, “and as a parent, you would never know.”
Depression is simply a fact in facing terminal illness. “Yet there are numerous studies that show if you treat the underlying depression, many people who say they want to die change their minds and fight for life, which is the natural thing to do,” Carlson said.
There are those who consider Initiative 1000 part of a very slippery slope toward euthanasia. Carlson agrees.
He gives “real credit” to Derek Humphrey, founder of the Hemlock Society and author of such books as Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying and Let Me Die Before I Wake: How Dying People End Their Suffering, for candor on the topic.
Humphrey “basically debunked” those who don’t want to refer to such measures as suicide. According to Carlson, Humphrey believes that “euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide will inevitably prevail in our society because they make economic sense.”
Factor in the rising cost of health care, the increased length of human life, and a “collision” is coming, “when economics will prevail … somebody in government is going to start drawing up criteria that determines who gets the drugs that fight cancer, and who doesn’t.”
Just as the bishop discussed at great length in his Aug. 21 column, all people, and all families, are touched by end-of-life issues. Further, “We’ve all been touched by somebody we know who committed suicide,” Carlson said. “I can’t thin of anybody who, when they find out that a relative or friend has committed suicide, doesn’t feel like the person has broken faith with society, broken faith with them, who doesn’t feel a sense of loss and tragedy, doesn’t wonder what they could have done to help prevent it, regardless of the age.”
Carlson himself lost a business partner to suicide.
At age 14, he lost his father, another suicide.
“For generations, suicide has been defined as an irrational act,” said Carlson. “And yet, here we are, trying to say, ‘well, under some circumstances, it can be rational.’ It’s inconsistent. We spend money on suicide prevention hotlines. Firemen and police keep people from jumping from buildings and bridges. We’re going to quit doing that?”
Just as the backers of the initiative play to people’s fears, those fighting the measure emphasize a provident God and society’s responsibility to care for its members.
“I think it really is fair to say that if you believe in God, you trust God,” Carlson said. “And you trust completely, from beginning to end. You know that you had no say in how or where or when you were born. God can call you home any time, and you don’t really have a ‘right’ to say when that happens.
“It’s not an issue of pain anymore,” he said. “Even the most outspoken proponents of assisted suicide will concede that it’s not an issue of pain anymore. Palliative care is such that pain is not a valid argument. It’s an issue of power.
“It’s our natural inclination to fight for every breath. Furthermore, for me, there’s a thin line between hope and hopelessness.
“Why would we encourage people to give up?”