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
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
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
"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
A federal or state issue?
But for others, Oregon's law is as abhorrent as laws that allow
"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. …