THE profound debate over an individual's "right to die" is
being pushed into more difficult ethical, professional, and -
inevitably - political ground.
Both supporters and opponents of assisted suicide see the issue
as the equivalent of abortion, in both social and legal importance.
A federal court case launched recently in Washington State could
well become the next "Roe vs. Wade" for judges to decide.
In Oregon, there is a petition campaign for a ballot initiative
to allow doctors to provide "death with dignity" by prescribing
lethal medication for patients diagnosed as terminally ill and
specifically requesting such medication.
Proponents of the Oregon measure say it has many safeguards not
included in similar measures defeated in Washington State in 1991
and California a year later. Since then, public opinion (including
many medical doctors) has moved in favor of physician-assisted
A national Harris Poll in December showed 73 percent agreeing
that "the law should allow doctors to comply with the wishes of a
dying patient in severe distress who asks to have his or her life
ended." This is a 10-percent increase from eight months earlier.
Meanwhile, the trial of Michigan doctor Jack Kevorkian, charged
with violating state law banning assisted suicide, has drawn
international attention. (At this writing, the case was in the
hands of the jury, which had taken the weekend off.)
Opposition to physician- assisted suicide comes mainly from
the medical establishment (including the American Medical
Association and state medical groups), the Roman Catholic church,
and anti-abortion groups.
"It's a real devaluation of human life," says Kay Estes, who
works with Oregon Right to Life, which includes a political action
committee supporting candidates opposed to abortion and assisted
suicide. "It comes down to people allowing doctors or families
deciding whether a person has quality of life."
"It's a real big issue," she adds. "It may even become larger
At the moment, such opponents have the political edge.
Thirty-three states have laws banning assisted suicide. There have
been recent attempts in four states to make assisted suicide legal
(Connecticut, Rhode Island, Texas, and Wisconsin). But in no state
has such a bill passed.
The group "Compassion in Dying," which provides information
and counseling on suicide to those diagnosed as terminally ill, is
challenging Washington State's ban on assisted suicide on the
grounds that it violates the 14th Amendment to the United States