By Elaine Cassel
Physician-assisted suicide is illegal in all states except Oregon. While opponents seek to sidetrack Oregon's law, proponents report that its use is limited and that it is not being abused. Since the 1997 enactment of Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, which allows physicians to assist certain patients in committing suicide by providing them with a drug that will induce a painless death, 60 people have availed themselves of the option, 27 each in 1999 and 2000. The law requires that the patient must be 18 years or older, an Oregon resident, capable of communicating health care decisions, and suffering from a terminal illness that will lead to death within six months.
All Oregon physicians who have assisted patients in committing suicide reported prescribing lethal doses of federally controlled substances, usually a barbiturate. Former Attorney General Janet Reno issued an order prohibiting federal drug agents from prosecuting doctors operating under the Oregon law. But Oregon state legislators fear that President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, both opponents of the law, will take action to undermine the law. Ashcroft could rescind Reno's order and order the Drug Enforcement Administration to prosecute doctors for abuse of federally controlled substances; Bush could sign an Executive Order disallowing any Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements for any treatment related to assisted suicide. Members of Congress who are opponents of the law are proposing legislation that will revoke the licenses of physicians who use federally controlled substances to aid a patient's death.
Public opinion polls show that 40 to 50 percent of Americans approve of assisted suicide as a legal option, though few seek it for themselves, a fact borne out by the small number of Oregon residents who took advantage of the law. This gap between belief and practice suggests that people support the right of competent adults to make their own end-of-life decisions--whether it be for others to help them hasten their death or to allow death to take its natural course.
To read opposing viewpoints on this controversial issue, visit these websites:
National Right to Life Committee
Death with Dignity