- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Supreme Court last week overturned former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s finding that dispensing opiates and barbiturates for assisting suicide violates federal drug regulations. Oregon’s “Death with Dignity” law stands.

The high court decision mostly revolved around technical issues involving state and federal jurisdiction. But some have speculated it may also lead to a renewed flurry of interest in other states in copying the Oregon law. Under that law, if two physicians agree a patient is of sound mind and likely to die of a terminal illness within six months, they may fulfill a request for a lethal narcotics dose after a 15-day wait.

Official Oregon statistics show there have been 208 such assisted suicides since the law was enacted in 1997. In California and Vermont, assisted suicide laws have been introduced in the legislature in recent years. And in the abstract, polls find assisted suicide is popular with the public.

But in the end, such proposals seem a tough sell. Oregon’s law was approved by a narrow 51 percent of the voters. An assisted suicide measure was defeated 51-49 in Maine in 2000. The Hawaii legislature initially approved and then killed a legalization bill despite all-out support from then-Gov. Ben Cayetano. And in Michigan, once Ground Zero of the assisted suicide movement, a 1998 referendum initially polled 72 percent approval but it lost by an astonishing 3-1 margin.

True, the situation in Michigan was doubtless colored by the, er, terminal weirdness of Jack Kevorkian, a pathologist who never actually practiced medicine. He talked often and openly of his crusade to use assisted suicide to harvest organs and research the dying process. There were pictures of him making house calls to local motels in his rusty Volkswagen with his death-dispensing apparatus. And the vast majority of his 170 or so “patients” were women, many disabled or suffering depression.

Ultimately Kevorkian was sentenced to a long prison sentence for his self-videotaped offing of a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease, shown on “60 Minutes.” He was denied parole late last year by Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm despite reports he himself is now terminally ill.

But it’s also possible the more people generally think about the issue, the less attractive they find physician-assisted suicide. High-toned chatter about “death with dignity” and “individual autonomy” notwithstanding, assisted suicide can be far messier than it seems from afar.

For one thing, there is that slippery phrase, “terminally ill.” Medical studies show predictions of imminent death, even by experienced physicians, are highly unreliable.

Then there is the Netherlands, world capital of assisted suicide and euthanasia, where physicians have been prosecuted for helping kill people who were merely “tired of life.” And in Oregon there have been reports of cancer specialists making terminal diagnoses of patients with neurological problems.

A far safer middle ground is a focus on improved pain control. Model guidelines were promulgated in 1998, but many physicians may not be aware of them or reluctant to prescribe high doses of narcotics for fear of inducing addiction. As the New York Times’ Jane Brody wrote recently, they may also worry about being busted by the Drug Enforcement Administration if the medicine falls into the wrong hands.

The high court may be right to leave the matter of assisted suicide to the states. But out in the states, most voters are smart enough to sense the legal and moral thickets surrounding assisted suicide. When it takes 12,000 words to explain a ballot proposal, as the Michigan assisted suicide referendum did in 1998, you tend not to be reassured — much less think the state has any business authorizing mere men and women to exercise the God-like powers of life and death.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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