The furor over the life and death of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman who died last week in Florida, put Barbara Coombs Lee in a familiar role-in the spotlight as the source to turn to for answers on end-of-life choices. Lee is president of Compassion & Choices, a Portland based nonprofit, and was the chief petitioner for Oregon's Death with Dignity Act.
Lee, a nurse and physician's assistant for 25 years before moving to law and health policy, has successfully fought off numerous legal challenges to the Oregon law permitting physician-assisted suicide. But Congress' moves to intrude into the Schiavo case, repeated federal forays aimed at overturning the wishes of Oregon voters, and an effort in Vermont to allow physician-assisted suicide have kept the issue alive.
WW: What do you think of the way the media framed the Schiavo story?
Barbara Coombs Lee: I think the media completely bought into the sensationalistic circus tactics that were on the side of the parents and the side of the right-to-life people that gathered there. I think it was quite a feat for Michael [Schiavo] and the people supporting him to retain their own composure and their own dignity and to protect Terri as much as they could. But then after she died, we come to find out that she was a shy person. One can only imagine what she would have thought to see these photos of her in the hospital-clearly not at her best-relayed all across the world.
Has the coverage made it easier or harder for you to get your message across?
The media wanted to make the issue, "Should she die, or should she not die," which was not the issue at all. And it was hard to get through the shrill tone of that question to get to the real question, which is "What did Terri want, how do we settle a dispute of fact like that, and what's the rule of law?''
Do you think you'd be facing the same challenges and legal opposition with a Democratic White House?
Social conservatives and religious extremists will always look for places where they can further their agenda. But had Terri Schiavo been dying in Oregon, I think it would have been a completely different story. They wouldn't have gained any traction with [Gov.] Ted Kulongoski. He would have been committed to the rule of law and allowing state courts to do the job they were intended to do.
You don't think he would have offered to adopt Terri?
[Laughing] I don't think so. I could be surprised, though.
Why have Oregonians consistently come down on the side of death with dignity?
Medical technology is a double-edged sword. It's a wonderful thing when it saves a life. It is not a wonderful thing when it prolongs a death. Oregonians have been thinking about the transition between saving a life and prolonging a death for themselves and for the culture at large for a long time. We can't keep advancing our technology and not take responsibility for its wide use. Oregonians have accepted responsibility for its wide use to a greater degree than other people have.
What was your reaction to the Estacada man, David E. Prueitt, who went into a coma and woke up after a failed assisted suicide? People were told that this sort of thing wouldn't happen, that it was a routine procedure.
The opposition in two campaigns was saying that the failure rate was 25 percent, and that was a lie. We have here our first failure. So the failure rate is 0.5 percent.
Have there been other failures that simply haven't been reported?
Not to my knowledge. There is no medical procedure that is 100 percent guaranteed 100 percent of the time. I think most people realize that. That said, there is an obligation to look at the variables to see if there was one that seems to have been the cause. I have my own suspicions as to what it might have been.
Have your donations increased as a result of the Schiavo case?
A little bit. Mostly it has been money out because there have been 50 requests an hour for advance directives from all over the country.
Is your organization on the defensive right now?
Not at all. I feel our organization is on the verge of a transformational moment. The transformation is happening. It's a new consciousness-a new American consciousness about the importance of decision-making and how fragile it is, that it's actually under assault.
Compassion & Choices (www.compassionindying.org , 221-9556) offers free state-by-state customized "advance directives" that inform doctors and family members of a patient's medical treatment wishes.
C&C normally gets 20 calls a day inquiring about advance directives but lately has averaged 50 calls an hour.