Pubdate: Fri, 16 Nov 2001
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2001 The Charlotte Observer
Author: Clarence Page (Chicago Tribune)


The Attorney General Makes A Backdoor Assault On Oregon's Law

Tribune Media Services W ASHINGTON -- "It is always consoling to think of 
suicide," the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, "in that 
way one gets through many a bad night."

Restless nights have returned to Oregon, thanks to Attorney General John 

Despite more urgent matters on Ashcroft's platter these days, Ashcroft has 
found time to make a backdoor assault on the Oregon law that permits 
doctor-assisted suicide.

In a Nov. 6 letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Ashcroft 
declared that any doctor who prescribes lethal drugs for terminally ill 
patients can face revocation of his or her license to prescribe federally 
controlled drugs.

The state filed suit Nov. 7, and U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones in 
Portland temporarily blocked the federal government from enforcing 
Ashcroft's order until at least Nov. 20.

I wish Oregon luck. After all, if executed criminals have the right to a 
pain-free death, why shouldn't the rest of us?

As in all dilemmas, this one offers a choice between two equally unpleasant 
alternatives: Allow the terminally ill to choose suicide, if they wish, or 
force them to hang on in agony, too sick to live, yet not sick enough to die.

Some of us have been through the agony of watching a loved one endure such 
an agonizing exit. For others, it is simply a terrible thought. The thought 
of prolonged suffering at the end of our lives is probably more painful for 
most of us than our fear of death itself.

When there is some hope of recovery, people tend to hang on fiercely and 

But when hope is gone, when the doctor says that it's just a matter of 
time, some of us would rather not prolong the inevitable.

Oregon voters debated and anguished and narrowly chose the right to choose 
in 1994. When legal challenges came, voters returned to the polls three 
years later and reaffirmed their decision by a bigger margin, 60 percent to 
40 percent.

Unlike the abortion issue, we are talking here about one's right to choose 
one's own death.

Under the state's "Death With Dignity Act," a terminally ill patient may 
take lethal drugs if two doctors agree the person has less than six months 
to live and is mentally competent to make the decision to end his or her life.

That should ease the worry that those who want to live might be terminated 
against their will by, say, greedy or impatient heirs.

And, contrary to the dire predictions of critics, there has not been a 
stampede to the euthanasia parlors. Since Oregon's law went into effect in 
late 1997, only about 70 terminally ill people have chosen this way to kill 
themselves, according to the Oregon Health Division, a state agency. That 
averages out to less than 20 people a year.

Many more have picked up the lethal drugs from their doctors, yet died 
without taking them. Many are said to have found it spiritually therapeutic 
in their final days simply to know that the option of an early exit was 
there, were their remaining lives to become too painful to bear.

Assisted suicide, Ashcroft said, is not a "legitimate medical purpose" for 
prescribing or handing out drugs. If not, what is?

Perhaps Ashcroft thinks medical treatment is "legitimate" only if it is 
intended to cure, not to comfort. Maybe he thinks medicine is not also 
legitimate when it eases pain and discomfort, even among those whose 
conditions are terminal.

Oregon's doctor-assisted suicide law is about as reasonable as such a law 
can be, but not reasonable enough for Ashcroft. Unable to overturn the law 
outright, Ashcroft took a backdoor route to block the expressed will of the 
state's voters. In the words of Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, Aschcroft 
"tossed the ballots of Oregon voters in the trash can."

How ironic. As a candidate, George W. Bush railed on the presidential 
campaign trail against Washington's intrusions in matters that should best 
be left up to the states. Now that Bush is in the White House, he stands 
back while his attorney general similarly intrudes.

Despite his lofty legal arguments, Ashcroft appears to be using the law 
only to enforce his personal faith and moral convictions. All of us 
Americans should defend his right to hold onto his beliefs. But the 
Constitution is supposed to prevent him from imposing his beliefs on us. 
Ashcroft's agents have enough on their hands these days trying to track 
down terrorists. They don't need to be trying to second-guess doctors on 
how many painkillers they should give out.
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart