Assisted-Suicide Issue More Active as Citizens Appear to Change Mood Oregon May Have Ballot Initiative, a Court Case in Washington Could Become `Roe vs. Wade' of the Suicide Question

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THE profound debate over an individual's "right to die" is being pushed into more difficult ethical, professional, and - inevitably - political ground.

Both supporters and opponents of assisted suicide see the issue as the equivalent of abortion, in both social and legal importance. A federal court case launched recently in Washington State could well become the next "Roe vs. Wade" for judges to decide.

In Oregon, there is a petition campaign for a ballot initiative to allow doctors to provide "death with dignity" by prescribing lethal medication for patients diagnosed as terminally ill and specifically requesting such medication.

Proponents of the Oregon measure say it has many safeguards not included in similar measures defeated in Washington State in 1991 and California a year later. Since then, public opinion (including many medical doctors) has moved in favor of physician-assisted suicide.

A national Harris Poll in December showed 73 percent agreeing that "the law should allow doctors to comply with the wishes of a dying patient in severe distress who asks to have his or her life ended." This is a 10-percent increase from eight months earlier.

Meanwhile, the trial of Michigan doctor Jack Kevorkian, charged with violating state law banning assisted suicide, has drawn international attention. (At this writing, the case was in the hands of the jury, which had taken the weekend off.)

Opposition to physician- assisted suicide comes mainly from the medical establishment (including the American Medical Association and state medical groups), the Roman Catholic church, and anti-abortion groups.

"It's a real devaluation of human life," says Kay Estes, who works with Oregon Right to Life, which includes a political action committee supporting candidates opposed to abortion and assisted suicide. "It comes down to people allowing doctors or families deciding whether a person has quality of life."

"It's a real big issue," she adds. "It may even become larger than abortion."

At the moment, such opponents have the political edge. Thirty-three states have laws banning assisted suicide. There have been recent attempts in four states to make assisted suicide legal (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Texas, and Wisconsin). But in no state has such a bill passed.

The group "Compassion in Dying," which provides information and counseling on suicide to those diagnosed as terminally ill, is challenging Washington State's ban on assisted suicide on the grounds that it violates the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. …