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High Court OKs Assisted Suicide Law in Oregon

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oregon became the first state Tuesday where doctor-assisted suicide for dying persons is legal, as the Supreme Court rejected the final appeals of those who have until now blocked the state’s voter initiative from taking effect.

“It is clear . . . the Supreme Court is standing behind its own decision to support full and robust debate in the 50 states,” said Portland attorney Eli Stutsman, a leading advocate of the 1994 law.

In June, the court ruled that the Constitution does not give individuals a “right to die” with medical help. However, the court did not reject the notion of doctor-assisted suicide itself. Instead, it said that this difficult issue should be resolved by the states and their voters, not by federal judges.

Under Oregon’s “Death With Dignity Act,” a competent, terminally ill person may ask a doctor to prescribe a lethal medication. In every other state, a physician who gives a patient medicine for the purpose of ending his or her life faces possible criminal prosecution.

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But soon after Oregon voters approved the measure, 51% to 49%, lawyers for the National Right to Life Committee challenged it as unconstitutional.

“State-sanctioned suicide” deprives the terminally ill of the equal protection of the laws, the Right to Life lawyers argued, because these patients--but not others--are not shielded from subtle pressures to end their lives.

Based on that claim, a federal judge in Eugene ruled the measure unconstitutional. Last year, however, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that judge’s decision and said that the challengers had no standing to bring the lawsuit.

The right-to-life group appealed to the Supreme Court, but the justices dismissed their appeal without comment on Tuesday (Lee vs. Harcleroad, 96-1824).

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“This is consistent with our position all along, that [the 1994 law] is constitutional because it gives you a choice. It doesn’t require you do anything,” said Peter Cogswell, a spokesman for the Oregon attorney general.

But the battle over assisted suicide is far from over in Oregon.

Leaders of the Right to Life group condemned the high court for failing to protect “our most vulnerable citizens” but agreed that the matter must be settled at the ballot box.

“We must not expect the courts to protect us from this dangerous legislation,” said James Bopp Jr., chief counsel for the committee and the attorney in the Oregon case. “It is now up to the voters to repeal this fatally flawed legislation.”

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Unlike many of California’s ballot measures, the 1994 Oregon initiative did not change the state’s Constitution. It merely added a new law. And laws can be revised or repealed by the state Legislature.

Earlier this year, the state’s Republican-led Legislature signaled that it wanted to repeal the 1994 law. But Oregon Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, a supporter of the measure, refused. He said that he would go along with revisions that improve the law but not a repeal of it.

Stymied, the Republicans instead passed a bill putting on the ballot a Measure 51 that asks whether the 1994 initiative on assisted suicide should be repealed.

Ballots are being mailed out this week, state officials said. They must be returned by mail before Nov. 4.

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A phone survey of 505 voters taken last month found that the respondents, by a 2-1 margin, oppose the repeal. Many of those surveyed said that they were irked by the Legislature’s decision to seek a second vote on the same question.

However, opponents, led by the Oregon Catholic Conference and the Oregon Assn. of Hospitals and Health Systems, said that the flaws of the 1994 law are just now being exposed. They are supporting a major advertising campaign urging a “yes” vote for the repeal.

The ads themselves have become a focus of controversy. Last week, three major television stations in the Portland area refused to broadcast commercials that show a young person dying a painful, prolonged death as a result of lethal medication.

“He’ll choke on his own vomit, in painful convulsions, and linger for days,” the narrator says.

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Proponents of the law attacked the ad as false and inflammatory. They said that a lethal dose of barbiturates puts a person into a deep sleep and causes death in several hours.

The assisted-suicide law has deeply split doctors and other health care professionals. Major statewide organizations, including the Oregon Medical Assn., have spoken in favor of the repeal. They said that the authority to end life should not be sanctioned as legal. Allowing lethal medications poses a real threat of abuse, they declared.

But other doctors, including Gov. Kitzhaber, have been leaders of the move to preserve the option of assisted suicide in controlled situations.

“As a physician, I can tell you there’s a clear difference between prolonging someone’s life and prolonging . . . death,” he said in a recent statement. “One of the downsides of modern medicine is that often it prolongs death, which I’m not sure is humane and I’m not sure is ethical.”

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