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Oregon's Suicide Measure Draws Hippocratic Fire

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 14, 1994


PASSAGE of an assisted-suicide measure in Oregon pushes the United States onto uncharted political and ethical ground.

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The ballot question, which allows doctors to provide a lethal prescription to consenting adult patients diagnosed as terminally ill, is profound in its implications.

And just as abortion became the focus of a long and difficult legal struggle 20 years ago, assisted suicide is likely to follow suit, particularly as more states are expected to follow Oregon's lead.

``There's nothing that happened in this election that was more important,'' says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. ``No one will remember who was in the 104th Congress 10 years from now, but everyone will remember the first state to make assisted suicide legal.''

Oregon's ``Measure 16,'' which passed last week with a 52 percent majority vote, is the next in a series of steps that proponents say have occurred to make assisted suicide more acceptable.

Four years ago, Jack Kevorkian, the controversial Michigan physician, began helping patients commit suicide. So far, he has provided the means and taken an active role in the deaths of 20 people - usually in the back of his old Volkswagen van.

In two state elections since then - Washington in 1991 and California in 1992 - voters faced measures that would have allowed doctors to administer lethal injections to patients who requested them.

Both measures, which contained what advocates said were safeguards against abuse, failed by 54 percent to 46 percent margins, despite preelection polls indicating most people in those two states favored the measures.

The Oregon measure puts even more of the responsibility on the patient, who will have to request a prescription, obtain the pills, and ingest them.

``It's important to acknowledge that it is the patient who is empowered by this initiative and not the physician,'' says Peter Goodwin, a Portland, Ore., medical doctor who worked for passage of the new ``death with dignity'' law.

The law applies when a physician determines that an adult patient has no more than six months to live. It requires a second physician's opinion, three specific requests from the patient (one in writing), professional counseling, and a 15-day waiting period.

Under the law, physicians and pharmacists may refuse to play any role in suicide if their conscience so dictates.

Still, the law has deeply divided the medical community. A key tenet of the Hippocratic Oath sworn to by physicians is: ``I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.''

While the Oregon Medical Association did not take a stand on the measure and a significant number of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals here publicly supported it, the American Medical Association opposed it.

``Right-to-life'' groups, former US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, and a variety of religious faiths worked for defeat of Measure 16, but most of the opposition came from the Roman Catholic Church.

Catholic leaders appealed for funds from local parishes and sources outside the state; opponents out-spent backers 3 to 1.