U.S. Supreme Court to hear challenge to Oregon’s suicide law
PORTLAND, Ore. – Julie McMurchie and her four siblings watched as their 68-year-old mother, Peggy Sutherland, lifted a lethal dose of barbiturates to her lips.It was difficult for them to accept that their mother was about to die, McMurchie said. But Sutherland was in a long and painful struggle with lung cancer, and her children supported her decision to end her life, McMurchie said.”We were all hugging and kissing her and telling her it was OK to let go,” McMurchie said. “Mom held up the glass of medication and said, ‘I don’t think anyone understands how much pain I’ve been in.’ Then she drank it herself. She was asleep in five minutes and she died within 20 minutes.”Sutherland took her own life under Oregon’s Death With Dignity law, legislation that took effect in 1997 that allows terminally ill patients to obtain lethal doses of medication from their doctors. No other state has such a law.The Bush administration is challenging the measure, arguing that hastening someone’s death is an improper use of medication and thus violates federal drug laws.The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case on Oct. 5. Supporters of the assisted suicide law say a favorable high court ruling could lead other states to follow Oregon’s lead.Oregonians approved the law in two separate votes, and many have come to see it as part of their state’s identity – something that sets them apart from the rest of the nation.Still, only a tiny portion of terminally ill Oregonians have used the law to take their lives – 208 people, representing about one in 1,000 deaths.The reasons for the law’s solid public support are connected with Oregon’s famous independent streak, said Jim Moore, who teaches political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove.”This is about access to assisted suicide, not necessarily being personally in favor of assisted suicide,” Moore said.George Eighmey, executive director of Compassion in Dying of Oregon, a group that advises assisted suicide patients in Oregon, said the law offers terminally ill patients a humane way to end their suffering.”The law is working well, in the sense that the few individuals who do use it are individuals are strongly independent; well-educated, financially secure and family-oriented,” Eighmey said. “These are people who wish to exit on their own terms.”Opponents include some doctors and religious organizations.”Assisted suicide is a reversal of the proper role of a doctor as a healer, comforter and consoler to an improper role of the physician causing a patient’s death,” said Dr. Kenneth Stevens of Physicians for Compassionate Care, a leading opposition group.The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has filed briefs in the Supreme Court case, contends that Oregon “is sending a very negative message to sick, elderly and vulnerable patients that their lives are not worth protecting and their suicides are not worth preventing,” spokesman Richard Doerflinger said.State officials say the law has worked smoothly, although one terminally ill cancer patient who tried to end his life with drugs awoke three days later, alert and talkative. The man died of natural causes about two weeks later. The state Board of Pharmacy is looking into the matter.Dr. Peter Rasmussen, a Salem oncologist, said he has helped more than 10 of his terminally ill patients end their lives with prescriptions.”In one case, there were members of a bikers club who came to say their goodbyes to their friend,” he said. “It almost had a party atmosphere, because that’s what the patient wanted.”Vail, Colorado
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