Assisted-Suicide Law In Oregon Stirs National Discontent

Oregon's controversial new assisted-suicide law has quickly become the focus of a nationwide legal battle.

The day before the ''Death with Dignity Act'' was to have gone into effect last week, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing physicians from prescribing fatal drug doses for patients diagnosed as terminally ill.

Opponents, including some doctors, patients, nursing home operators, and right-to-life advocates, argue that the measure violates due-process and equal-rights provisions of the United States Constitution as well as federal legislation designed to protect religious freedom and the rights of the disabled.

Partisans from around the country are weighing in.

Arguing for the restraining order was James Bopp of Terre Haute, Ind., chief attorney for National Right to Life and president of the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled.

''We're doing this so that people will not kill themselves,'' he said.

A major concern is that those legally able to obtain life-ending drugs will be ''vulnerable to undue influence to prematurely end their lives,'' as another attorney put it, despite what advocates say are strict safeguards against such influence.

''The terminally ill are disproportionate consumers of expensive medical services,'' said Thomas Alderman, who represents some of those opposing the law. ''[The measure] creates a powerful incentive for those liable to pay for the terminally ill to find ways to avoid those costs.''

The Roman Catholic Church, which led the fight to defeat the Oregon ballot measure, has continued its outspoken opposition. At their annual meeting last month, US Catholic bishops denounced the Oregon law as ''an ominous step toward cheapening human life in our society.'' The official Vatican newspaper likened it to euthanasia -- ''an abominable crime that can never be justified.''

The American bishops voted to increase church funding to fight the issue in other states. The church, with more than 1,200 hospitals and other health-care facilities in the United States, in taking this position, raises questions about whether doctors in those facilities -- even those who may not be Roman Catholics or share church values on the subject -- might be prevented from assisting with patient-requested suicides.

On the same day the Oregon law was held up by US District Judge Michael Hogan in Eugene, Ore., a panel of three judges from the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals began considering Washington State's law banning physician-assisted suicide. Earlier, a federal district-court judge ruled the law unconstitutional on grounds similar to federal law protecting abortion rights.

The outcome of these two cases is being closely watched around the country. Some 10 states reportedly are considering measures like the one approved by a slim majority of Oregon voters last month.

''There probably will be several copycat measures in the next couple of years,'' says Courtney Campbell, director of Oregon State University's program for ethics and science.

Illustrating the controversial and deeply-felt nature of the subject, there are parallel efforts to head off Oregon-like laws. The Michigan state senate last week enacted a permanent ban on assisted suicide. An earlier version of the law (aimed at Michigan doctor Jack Kevorkian, who has been present at 20 suicides since 1990) was ruled unconstitutional by state courts there.

A Connecticut court last Friday gave a man a five-year suspended sentence for helping his wife kill herself. His manslaughter conviction could have drawn a 10-year prison sentence.

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