Testing Ground for Doctor-Assisted Suicide National Attention Has Turned to Oregon's Year-Old Law, Which Strictly Regulates the Practice. as Opposition Grows, Alternatives, Such as Hospice Care, Are Getting More Support

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A year after Oregon's "Death with Dignity" law made it legal for physicians to help certain patients take their own lives, this profound and controversial measure has begun to have significant impact across the United States.

It has prompted a congressional attempt to restrict the use of certain federally controlled drugs that could expedite death. It has accelerated the use of hospice and palliative care for patients diagnosed as terminally ill. Above all, it has become a major issue for religious and other groups commonly associated with the fight to prevent abortion.

Gary Bauer, head of the conservative Family Research Council and a possible candidate for the presidency, recently called the fight to prevent physician-assisted suicide "the front line of the battle to protect the sanctity of human life." Other anti-abortion organizations have weighed in as well. Burke Balch, medical ethics director for the National Right to Life Committee, says doctors who provide drugs designed to take a patient's life and pharmacists who prescribe such drugs "should have their licenses revoked." Religious groups weigh in Meeting in Washington this week, Roman Catholic bishops are working on a proposal to make assisted suicide - along with abortion - one of the church's top political priorities. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints actively opposes the practice as well. Mormon Church officials have declared that hastening the end of one's life undermines the "measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society." Church spokesman Don LeFevre recently told the Deseret News in Salt Lake City that taking part in suicide or euthanasia "violates the commandments of God." Following Oregon's groundbreaking move, critics warned there would be a spurt of secretive Kevorkian-type demises, that out-of-staters would rush here to commit suicide, that safety measures built into the law would fail and strictly controlled suicide would become involuntary euthanasia. None of that has happened. Only about a dozen individuals have ended their lives under the law, which requires a 15-day waiting period and a second opinion as to the patient's mental condition, and which specifically prohibits "lethal injection, mercy killing, or active euthanasia." Caution seems to have been the byword as medical professionals and their patients move into this controversial new world touching on the most profound of questions. …

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