Oregon Escalates Its Heated Right-to-Die Debate after Several Legal Suicides, Opponents Urge an End to Death with Dignity Law

By Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 8, 1998 | Go to article overview

Oregon Escalates Its Heated Right-to-Die Debate after Several Legal Suicides, Opponents Urge an End to Death with Dignity Law


Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


After a long political battle over the right to physician-assisted suicide, people in Oregon have begun to take their own lives with the help of doctors. But will this ethically and morally wrenching practice - still outlawed everywhere else in the world - spread to other states?

Given the rush to pass laws banning the practice elsewhere, that seems unlikely. And despite the warnings of opponents who continue to challenge the law in federal courts and in Congress, most experts doubt that Oregon will become for suicide what Nevada once was to quickie marriages and easy divorces - a magnet to out-of-staters.

In the five months since voters here overwhelmingly approved the "Death With Dignity" ballot measure, just two Oregonians are known to have used drugs prescribed under the law to commit suicide. Supporters say this is because of safeguards built into the statute. Referring to a recent Oregon case, Faye Girsh, executive director of the right-to-die organization Hemlock Society USA said, "The woman was able to die gently, peacefully, quickly, and with certainty in the presence of her family, aided by a compassionate doctor who will not lose his license or go to jail." Not everyone agrees with this assessment. Burke Balch, director of medical ethics for the National Right to Life Committee, called it the first step down a "slippery slope" from allowing patients the means to end their lives, to euthanasia - cases in which others make that decision for them. In addition, there are other things that raise warning flags for medical ethicists and the public watching Oregon's unique experiment: the hospital worker in California who says he euthanized 40 to 50 patients whom he, and perhaps others on the medical staff, believed would soon die anyway. And Jack Kevorkian, who continues to defy authorities in Michigan by helping people kill themselves there - 100 so far, he claims. Opponents of Oregon's groundbreaking law, including groups representing the disabled, raise the specter of Dr. Kevorkian and his "suicide machine" to argue their case. Mr. Balch warns that, should Oregon's model be followed, there will be "nonvoluntary euthanasia for those who cannot speak for themselves." But in an echo of earlier debates about "back-alley abortions," supporters also cite the controversial Michigan pathologist to warn of "clandestine or violent methods when legal help is not available." "Do we want more Oregons or more Kevorkians?" asks Ms. Girsh. Under Oregon's law, a patient diagnosed as likely to die within six months may request a prescription for a lethal amount of medication to be self-administered orally. There is a 15-day waiting period, a second medical opinion is required as to the patient's physical and mental condition, and the act specifically prohibits "lethal injection, mercy killing, or active euthanasia. …

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