- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

When Oregon voters approved physician-assisted suicide in their state in 1994, activists on both sides of the issue said they expected that similar legislation would sweep the country. But that hasn’t happened.

“People aren’t marching in the streets, demanding the right to be killed by doctors,” said Wesley J. Smith, lawyer for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, a group that opposes those actions.

That’s the case, the Oakland, Calif., lawyer said, even though “there is a very energetic committed movement out there, seeking to change the law” to legalize assisted suicide.

States in which “right-to-die” leaders have tried and failed to allow people to end their lives either through ballot initiatives or legislative action include Washington (1991), California (1992), Michigan (1998), Maine (2000), New Hampshire (2000) and Hawaii (2002)

Some of the votes were close, but not all. A referendum in Michigan five years ago failed with 71 percent opposed and 29 percent in favor. Early in that campaign, polls showed strong support for the initiative. The defeat was seen as a backlash against Jack Kevorkian, a former pathologist who said he helped 130 persons kill themselves and had been treated gently by Michigan courts in four trials.

Some thought Kevorkian went too far when he let “60 Minutes” broadcast the September 1998 death of Tom Youk, a 52-year-old Michigan man with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder and delivering a controlled substance to Mr. Youk. He was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison.

Rita Marker, head of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, said late last year the former Hemlock Society, a pro-assisted-suicide organization now called End-of-Life Choices, would be “making a concerted effort” to win passage of assisted-suicide legislation in Vermont during the current legislative session. But a staffer for the state Senate recently said the measure “isn’t going anywhere this year.”

“There’s also talk of a potential referendum in Arizona,” Mr. Smith said. “The people who want direct euthanasia or assisted suicide really want it.”

Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion in Dying, based in Portland, Ore., said, “Of course, I’m disappointed that Oregon is the only state with assisted suicide. But I remain hopeful there could be others, because it’s been such a success in Oregon.”

Ms. Lee sees the chance for an eventual win in Vermont.

“It’s a relatively nonsectarian state,” she said, adding that she doesn’t consider Vermont’s liberalism a major factor. “There are libertarians who like physician-assisted suicide … our issue cuts across the political spectrum.”

Asked why assisted suicide has failed in most states where it’s been proposed, Ms. Lee blames “entrenched political interests and ideologies,” which she says are often at odds with the “public will.”

But Mr. Smith said one reason the measures haven’t prevailed much so far is because people with disabilities have become leading opponents, because they “saw themselves as targets.”

“There’s been a tremendous diversity of conservatives and liberals coming together to oppose these measures,” he said.

Evidence suggests that many patients who are terminally ill with cancer and other disorders do not get enough relief from pain. A Rand Corp. study in the 1990s questioned a large group of dying patients and found out that they wanted to be free from pain, but did not want assisted suicide.

Ms. Lee of Compassion in Dying said members of her group are a “supportive presence” at the suicides of terminally ill people who wish to end their lives.

“We make sure the [suicide] option is the last option … we make sure pain is well-controlled. We have patients obtain [a lethal dose of] medication from their own doctors. The patients always self-administer the medication,” she said in a telephone interview.

Right now, the main focus in this battle over the right to die is before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, where a decision by a three-judge panel in a case that could end assisted suicides in Oregon, has been awaited since last summer.

In oral arguments in May, Justice Department lawyers contended that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has the right to bar Oregon doctors from prescribing legal doses of controlled narcotics to terminally ill patients.

They noted that the drugs that doctors prescribe under the state’s Death with Dignity law are regulated by the federal Controlled Substances Act, which limits their use to medical purposes. Federal lawyers have held that assisted suicide is not a medical procedure.

To qualify for assisted suicide in Oregon, a physician must determine that the adult patient has a life expectancy of less than six months. A second physician must find the patient mentally competent and not depressed. A patient must make two oral requests for aid in dying and then put a third in writing. He then must wait 15 days before receiving the lethal prescription and must take the drug himself.

Dorothy Niemeyer of the Oregon Department of Human Services says 129 persons ingested fatal doses of medication under the state statute in the first five years after it took effect in 1997.

“Physicians aren’t required to report [assisted suicides] until they write a lethal prescription,” she said in a telephone interview.

Through 2002, she said, doctors wrote a total of 198 lethal prescriptions. It’s uncertain whether the other 69 patients who received those prescriptions failed to fill them or use them or died on their own.

Oregon officials recently reported that 42 persons died through assisted suicide in 2003, up from 38 the previous year.

Stressing that “prognosis is not an exact science,” Mrs. Niemeyer cited one case in which a man whose doctors said he would be dead in less than six months “was still alive two years later.”

She also acknowledged a recent flap that followed the death of an Oregon man with seizures, who was unable to get the medication he needed because of treatment rationing under the Oregon Health Plan. Some questioned why funds were available to help people die, but not to keep them alive.

Mrs. Niemeyer said she seriously doubts Oregon’s assisted-suicide program can continue if the federal appeals court supports the federal government’s arguments before the 9th Circuit Court.

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