- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2000

Aren't the opportunities for laudatory fortitude, submission and humility the same?
Isn't how we anticipate remembrance by our loved ones during our autumnal days every bit as important to the serenity of our souls as their springtime remembrances?
What then justifies the pending congressional initiative to destroy Oregon's 3-year-old, life-affirming, physician-assisted suicide law, the Oregon Death With Dignity Act (DWDA), which enables Oregonians in their final hours to chart their deaths as they charted their lives?
The genesis and operation of the DWDA bespeak modesty, prudence and respect for human freedom. It first passed by referendum on Nov. 8, 1994, with a 51 percent margin. A second referendum on Nov. 4, 1997, attracted a decisive 60 percent majority. Proponents did not enlist Nazi-like diatribes against the poor, disabled or elderly as dispensable commodities. Neither did they complain of the high costs of treating terminally ill patients, nor insinuate that the socially marginal were living too long. The citizens of Oregon rallied to the DWDA because it celebrates the right of mature adults to choose how to die.
The right to decide how to live is no greater. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court in Cruzan vs. Director, MDH (1990) affirmed a constitutional right to die.
In sum, the DWDA was no crafty, unsavory plot by Oregon's citizens to turn the state from Athens to Sparta through ridding itself of physical or mental undesirables. The multiple safeguards of the physician-assisted suicide law are corroborative.
Eligibility is confined to terminally ill patients expected to die within six months. Assisted suicide must be knowingly and voluntarily requested on three separate occasions. One must be made in writing and witnessed by two non-family members. A second physician opinion must confirm the patient's mental soundness, terminal affliction and six-month life expectancy. If physician-assisted suicide is approved, the patient must self-administer the lethal dose of the drug, like Socrates and the hemlock. Neither patient hesitation nor irresolution permits outside help.
Experience under the DWDA is also reassuring. During its first two years, 42 patients, 30 with terminal cancer, opted for assisted suicide, which constituted less than .09 percent (9/100ths of 1 percent) of all deaths in Oregon. Moreover, patients were not browbeaten in their decision-making. Many initial assisted-suicide requests were withdrawn after freely available medical, social or spiritual interventions.
Now comes Big Brother Congress with the Pain Relief Promotion Act of 2000 (PRPA) to sledgehammer the DWDA out of existence. The federal law has passed the House of Representatives, and is awaiting a Senate vote. It would make physician-assisted suicide in Oregon, if executed with a federally controlled substance, a federal crime and expose doctors to imprisonment.
Crusaders for the PRPA are well-intentioned, but unconvincing. Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith's attitudinal testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee is exemplary: "[I]t is dangerous to make doctors and the state complicit in killing, even though consensual. In an age of medical rationing and for profit HMOs, there is a terrible ethical and financial conflict of interest… . I will not be party to building … a society [with a family duty to die] or justifying such a culture of death. In such a culture, we should never wonder why children do not value life when adults write laws that do not value it either."
Mr. Smith, however, fails to elaborate the danger of involving the medical community and the state in voluntary assisted suicide. It seems indistinguishable from their involvement in the death penalty, which has not been shown to make society more callous or reckless toward human life. Since passage of the DWDA, no earmarks of a culture of death in Oregon have emerged.
The insinuation the DWDA is nothing but an ugly plot by HMOs and the state to save medical dollars seems fanciful. Mr. Smith cites no evidence that the law was inspired, drafted or otherwise fueled by medical profit and loss statements, nor that HMOs expended millions in support of the two DWDA referenda. Neither does he demonstrate serious annual medical cost savings attributable to the handful of past and prospective DWDA patients. States save tens of thousands in prison expenditures whenever a death sentence is implemented, but that financial attraction has not occasioned a rush to execute. Indeed, nationwide the average lapse between commission of a capital crime and capital punishment approximates 10 years.
According to a report issued by the Oregon Health Division last February, 47 percent of DWDA patients were influenced by "concern about being a burden to others." But that concern seems universal, praiseworthy and unworrisome. If you were terminally ill with a life expectancy of less than six months, wouldn't you wish to spare your family the unparalleled agony and trauma of a protracted death watch?
To be sure, care should be taken to prevent potential DWDA abuses, but through scrupulous oversight, not federal infanticide.

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