Latest Showdown over Assisted Suicide ; US Supreme Court Is Likely to Be Asked to Settle Dispute between Bush Administration and Oregon over State's'right to Die' Law

Article excerpt

Four years ago, Oregon began a social and medical experiment with profound ethical implications: allowing physicians to help people end their lives. Now, the Bush administration has chosen the state, with its unique suicide law, as a place to shore up its conservative wing by asserting its "pro-life" political credentials.

Leading the effort is Attorney General John Ashcroft, an opponent of abortion and legalized suicide since his days as a US senator. Last week, Mr. Ashcroft ruled that under the federal Controlled Substances Act, doctors may not prescribe drugs for the purpose of hastening death. A federal judge immediately placed a temporary restraining order on Justice Department enforcement of Ashcroft's ruling, and the case is likely headed for the US Supreme Court.

The issue is complicated, as a series of legislative debates, ballot measures, and court cases around the country in recent years have shown. It involves medical ethics, federal drug law, questions of privacy, and the balance of legal and political power between states and the federal government.

Oregon's Death with Dignity Act became law in 1997, after voters twice had approved it at the polls by wide margins. It applies only to mentally competent adults who declare their intentions in writing, are diagnosed as terminally ill, and take the prescribed drug themselves orally after a waiting period. Oregon's law specifically prohibits "lethal injection, mercy killing, or active euthanasia."

How Oregon's law has played out

Critics had predicted that vulnerable patients could be pressured by doctors or family members to end their lives, and also warned that out-of-staters might rush to Oregon to take advantage of its law.

Apparently, neither has happened. On average, roughly 20 people a year chose to end their lives under the law.

At the same time, what medical practitioners consider ideal end- of-life care has increased here, including palliative treatment for discomfort, hospice care (twice the national average), and care that allows patients to spend their last days at home with families and friends.

"Oregon's aid-in-dying law is working as intended," says Barbara Coombs Lee, president of the Compassion in Dying Federation, the assisted-suicide law's main advocacy group. "Very few people use medication to hasten their death, yet thousands obtain comfort knowing the choice is theirs if they experience intolerable suffering."

A federal or state issue?

But for others, Oregon's law is as abhorrent as laws that allow abortion.

"The idea of assisted suicide is a poison pill that kills the dignity of a precious human life," says Ken Cooper, president of the Family Research Council in Washington, the conservative organization once headed by Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer. …