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Fight on Bid to Halt Suicide Law

Policy: Hemlock Society starts a campaign to block Ashcroft's directive against doctors in Oregon.

November 28, 2001|Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A right-to-die group began a campaign Tuesday to derail U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's decision to act against doctors who use Oregon's one-of-a-kind law permitting physician-assisted suicide.

The Hemlock Society's campaign includes newspaper ads and letters to politicians urging Congress to act or at least try to convince President Bush to override his attorney general.

Ashcroft said this month that doctors who use federally controlled drugs to help patients die, as permitted under Oregon's law, face suspension or revocation of their licenses to prescribe the drugs. An Oregon judge has temporarily blocked implementation of Ashcroft's decision.

The Denver-based group said Ashcroft's directive will have a chilling effect on doctors nationwide, who will be reluctant to prescribe adequate pain medication for fear a patient would take too much.

Among the society's members is Nelson Pritchett of Brighton, Mass., who has Lou Gehrig's disease. The directive has made him lose hope his state will enact laws to help patients die swiftly under a doctor's care.

"It is not suicide," Pritchett said from his wheelchair at a news conference. "I would like to hear it be called death by choice."

Not Dead Yet, a disability rights group, says the society's fears of a chilling effect are unfounded, because the Oregon law provides for prescribing barbiturates to enable patients to kill themselves, not pain medications, such as morphine.

"We want to make clear that aggressive pain control is a legitimate medical use of federally controlled substances," said Stephen Drake, research analyst for Not Dead Yet.

In a letter to the Oregon Medical Assn., Ashcroft said drug agents won't scrutinize doctors who prescribe regulated drugs for pain. But they will get reports filed to Oregon health authorities as required for each assisted-suicide case.

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