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JUSTICES UPHOLD RIGHT-TO-DIE LAW

'We Won,' Says Cancer Patient in Oregon Case

One of four plaintiffs hails the high court's decision as a moral victory for the dying and legal vindication for the state's voters.

January 18, 2006|Tomas Alex Tizon and Lynn Marshall | Times Staff Writers

PORTLAND, Ore. — Cancer patient Charlene Andrews, 68, was on her morning walk in a shopping mall Tuesday when she heard news that the nation's highest court upheld Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law.

She offered two words, spoken with relief: "We won."

Andrews, one of four patient plaintiffs in the case, joined a chorus hailing the U.S. Supreme Court ruling as a moral victory for the terminally ill and legal vindication for Oregon voters. Twice they approved the state's pioneering Death With Dignity Act, first passed in 1994.

Even opponents of the law conceded the end of the legal battle, but some groups, including the local Roman Catholic Archdiocese and a coalition of physicians, vowed to continue educating the public about the law's harmful effects -- both social and moral. Some opponents held out hope that Congress could still pass legislation banning the practice nationally.

But supporters expressed a mixture of joy and sadness.

"The ruling is very gratifying to me, to be assured that this right is there for the very few people who really need it," said Nora Miller, whose spouse of 31 years used the law in 1999 to determine the time of his death. At the age of 52, Rick Miller was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

"It was very important to him that he be in control of his last moments, conscious and able to say goodbye to us," Nora Miller said. "And it was important to me to be able to help him fulfill that last wish. His death was calm, peaceful, and as good as it could be under the circumstances."

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called the ruling "a significant victory for Oregon's voters," one that has foiled the Bush administration's "attempts to wrest control of decisions rightfully left to the states and individuals." Wyden said he would fight any congressional attempt to override the decision.

Oregon Atty. Gen. Hardy Myers said the ruling "clearly affirms the authority of Oregon, and every other state, to determine the scope of the practice of medicine within its borders." Myers called it a victory for patients and physicians in all states.

"Unfortunately, it's unlikely the decision will end attacks against Oregon's law and the national death with dignity movement," said Peg Sandeen, executive director of the National Death with Dignity Center, based in Oregon. Sandeen said the debate could become "a touchstone issue" in the upcoming midterm elections.

Oregon is the only state in which physician-assisted suicide is legal.

Under the law, a doctor can prescribe a lethal dose of medication -- usually barbiturates -- to a terminally ill patient, 18 or older and an Oregon resident, who has six months or less to live and who is deemed to be of sound mind. Two physicians must confirm the diagnosis and prognosis, and two physicians must attest to the patient's soundness of mind.

The patient must make the request in writing, with witnesses, and then repeat the request after a waiting period of at least 15 days. The patient can rescind the request at any time and in any manner. A physician provides the medication, and the patient swallows it. The drug cannot be administered by anyone else.

Oregon voters passed the Death With Dignity Act in 1994 by a margin of 51% to 49%, and voters reaffirmed the law in 1997 by an even larger margin, with 60% in favor and 40% opposed. The law went into effect at the end of 1997.

In all, 208 Oregonians died by doctor-assisted suicide during the first seven years, through 2004. That represents about one in 1,000 Oregon deaths. Kenneth R. Stevens Jr., a longtime opponent of the law, said he was "surprised and disappointed" by the court ruling, and repeated his argument that "assisted suicide does not have a place in a medical practice."

Stevens, a retired cancer doctor and professor at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland for 33 years, heads a group called Physicians for Compassionate Care. Stevens said the group's 1,500 members would continue its "education campaign" against the practice.

Archbishop John G. Vlazny of the Catholic Archdiocese in Portland said in a statement that "the failure of our governmental structures to prevent doctors from violating medicine's historic ethical prohibition, 'Do no harm,' is a tragic error of immense proportion and significance."

"The ethical directive to doctors to protect their patients predates Christianity [and] has served humanity well," Vlazny said.

For cancer patient and mall-walker Andrews, the vigorous debate over Oregon's law has had a paradoxical effect. In 2000, she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, and the disease eventually spread to her liver.

"I thought it was an immediate death sentence," Andrews said. But instead of feeling sorry for herself, she decided "to put my cancer to good use." She joined the Death with Dignity campaign, and has been an advocate ever since.

The effect of fighting passionately for a cause she deeply believes in, she said, has been oddly restorative.

"I am still here," Andrews said. "I take my three-mile walk at the mall everyday, and who knows what new treatments could come along. I am 68, and I plan to make it to 70."

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