Letter from Oregon: The State of Euthanasia

Article excerpt

In the only state where suicide is legal, the state of the state is confusion.

On November 4, Oregon's Ballot Measure 51, which would have overturned the physician-assisted suicide law (Measure 16) passed by voters in 1994, was soundly defeated, 60-40. That is a stunning margin, given that the 1994 law passed by a mere two percentage points.

On November 5, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency issued this statement: "The Controlled Substances Act authorizes the DEA to revoke the registration of physicians who dispense controlled substances without a legitimate medical purpose....[Issuing a prescription for deadly doses of medication] would be, in our opinion, a violation of the Act."

In the days following, the media were filled with two reactions, summed up, on one side, by Republican Senator Gordon Smith ("I support this action") and on the other by Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio ("the DEA is attempting to make criminals of physicians helping Oregonians with very personal, difficult decisions. They're way out of line, and they should just butt out").

The governor, John Kitzhaber, M.D., who spent years working in an emergency room, tiptoed around the issue: "It's up to Oregon voters to determine what appropriate medical practice is, and they've done so." No further comment; he is waiting to see what will happen with the DEA.

President Bill Clinton waits, too. According to White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, the president opposes doctor-assisted suicide, but has no official stance on Oregon's law or the DEA's statement.

On November 25, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Oregon left antisuicide activists one last legal hope: a February 1998 hearing on "standing to sue."

So, in Oregon, everyone waits: doctors, fearful of losing their DEA registration; politicians, fearful (with the exception of Smith) of contravening a law twice approved by their constituents; patients, unable to find doctors to prescribe deadly doses of medicine; and the Catholic church, rattled by an overwhelming political defeat.

A little history of Catholicism and politics in Oregon will help here. In 1925, the Supreme Court overturned a state law that prohibited private education, a measure largely sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan. Ever since, Oregon Catholics have felt a certain edginess in political matters. While Catholics are the largest single religious group in Oregon, they make up only 10 percent of the population, and Oregon (with Alaska and Washington) is one of the most unchurched states in the nation. In short, the Catholic church doesn't have much political sway, is sensitive to anti-Catholic sentiments, and involves itself in only a few political issues.

In 1992, the Oregon Catholic Conference played a major role in defeating the first of several antigay ballot measures. But then in 1994, Ballot Measure 16 passed by a hair, for two reasons. First, Oregonians found twenty-seven measures on their ballots, among them another antigay measure. The suicide measure was the most important referendum on the ballot that year, but there were so many other measures that voters' attention was splintered. Second, the church decided to remain neutral on a new antigay measure on the ballot and poured its resources into opposing physician-assisted suicide. In addition to large financial contributions, then-Archbishop William Levada directed priests in the archdiocese to attack the measure from the pulpit. The combination of the church's change in stance on the antigay-rights measure, along with its very public attacks on assisted suicide, alienated a percentage of Oregon's electorate.

Once Measure 16 passed three years ago, the idea of assisted suicide changed in Oregon - it became reality, the law, normal, even as it languished in court. People talked in their workplaces, among friends, within families about assisted suicide and quality-of-care for the dying. Politicians were asked their opinions. …