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Jack Kevorkian drove the debate on physician-assisted suicide

Jack Kevorkian, who died Thursday, was a controversial figure who confronted one of society’s most profound ethical issues: Should a physician be able to help a person commit suicide?

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While Oregon is unique in some ways – it's the most "unchurched" state, with residents less likely to be members of or regularly attend churches, synagogues, or mosques – it also reflects the kind of leave-me-alone libertarianism seen in parts of the West.

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Few states followed Oregon's lead

Just two states have followed Oregon’s lead. Washington passed a similar law, and the Montana Supreme Court last year ruled that that neither state law nor public policy prevented doctors from prescribing lethal drugs to terminally-ill patients who want to end their lives. Efforts in other states have failed.

During the Bush administration, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, an opponent of abortion and legalized suicide since his days as a US senator, ruled that under the federal Controlled Substances Act, doctors may not prescribe drugs for the purpose of hastening death.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, antiabortion groups, and other conservative organizations hailed the attorney general's ruling. Some medical professionals argued that helping a patient take his or her own life violates the Hippocratic Oath.

In essence, legal opponents of physician-assisted suicide argued that barbiturates and morphine (the legal drugs typically used in physician-assisted suicide) should be seen in the same light as marijuana, which is an illegal drug under federal law.

US Supreme Court weighs in

But in a 6-to-3 ruling in 2006, the US Supreme Court decided that Oregon's Death With Dignity Act could not be blocked by the Bush administration's interpretation of federal drug laws.

Euthanasia, in which a doctor ends the life of a patient – either with or without that person's explicit permission – is illegal in the United States.

It has been allowed under certain circumstances in the Netherlands and Belgium. But there has been some evidence that the practice is more widespread than reported – including in the United States. In at least one case, Kevorkian admitted that it was he – and not his patient – who had operated the “suicide machine.”

Throughout his life Kevorkian remained a highly controversial figure – a death-dealing zealot to some, way ahead of the medical profession in end-of-life issues to others.

“He was involved in this because he thought it was right, and whatever anyone wants to say about him, I think that’s the truth,” Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Washington Post. “He didn’t do it for the money, he didn’t do it for the publicity, he wasn’t living a luxurious life – he wanted change.”

“I think Jack Kevorkian was like a flare on the battlefield,” Mr. Caplan said. “He lit up the issue and everyone paid attention.”

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