Oregon Blazes a Medical Trail Recent Vote Legalized Doctor-Assisted Suicide

Article excerpt

AS SOON AS OREGON VOTERS passed a law allowing doctor-assisted suicide, AIDS patient Tim Shuck started planning to take advantage of it.

On Thursday, official tallies showed the ballot proposal had passed 52 percent to 48 percent. Shuck, who learned in April that the HIV virus is invading his brain, had talked to his doctor about suicide a day earlier.

"It allows me to have some control over my life," said Shuck, 45. "My decision was based on what my needs are going to be. Once my brain is gone, I see no purpose for me to be around."

When the measure on Tuesday's ballot takes effect Dec. 8, Oregon will become the only place in the nation that lets doctors hasten death for the dying.

A patient with six months or less to live will be able to ask a doctor to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs. At least two doctors must agree that the patient's condition is terminal, and the patient must ask three times, the last time in writing. Doctors must wait 15 days after this last request before writing the lethal prescription.

Doctors who follow the law's guidelines cannot be prosecuted or sanctioned by professional organizations and licensing boards. Other health professionals, such as pharmacists, do not receive the same protection.

The law pushes Oregon to the forefront of the movement to give the dying the freedom to choose when and how to end their lives. But it also raises difficult questions for doctors who have been trained to heal, not kill.

"Nobody wants Oregon to become a drop-in center for death," said Dr. Susan Tolle, director of the Center for Ethics in Health Care at Oregon Health Sciences University.

The seeds of the national debate over euthanasia were sown June 4, 1990, when Janet Adkins of Portland, a victim of Alzheimer's disease, killed herself in Michigan with the help of Dr. …