Oregon doctors are allowed to make their own decisions about prescribing a lethal dose of medication, and are by no means required to fulfill a patients request. Patients proven to be of sound mind must be diagnosed as having six months left to live by three different doctors before being able to request a prescription.
Though legal, few patients have actually chosen to end their lives. Through 2004, 325 people had acquired a prescription and 208 had ended their lives.
In 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft declared that any physician who assisted a patient in killing him or herself would be prosecuted under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. Oregon lawmakers, along with a physician, a pharmacist and several terminally ill patients filed suit to challenge Ashcrofts stance.
The case worked its way through the upper echelons of the judicial system, and in January, the Supreme Court ruled that Ashcroft had overstepped his bounds. Regulation of doctors is a state right.
Ashcroft over-stepped his bounds by making this rule without conferring with anyone from Oregon or outside his own department. The authority claimed by the attorney general is both beyond his expertise and incongruous with the statutory purposes and design, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.
Dissenters Chief Justice John Roberts (in his first high-profile ruling) and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas made their decision out of an ethical judgment rather than a judgment of the law. Scalia wrote in the dissenting opinion that the legitimacy of physician-assisted suicide ultimately rests not on science or medicine, but on a naked value judgment.
The issue is no doubt a hard one, with many people taking different stances. Ethicists from all sides have weighed in, some calling the law a misuse of medication, and some saying that when done by the rules, it is perfectly acceptable.
I think the thing to remember in these cases is, first and foremost, the people. Death is not an easy thing to face for the people who are dying or for the people who love them, especially when that death is foreseeable and painful.
The law gives these people, should they so choose, the chance to take back control from their illness, which in many cases has controlled their lives since even before diagnosis. Who should deny a dying person their last wish, even if that wish is death?
Ashcroft sure tried. And to his credit, his motivations were good. Many people believe suicide is wrong and that allowing someone to commit suicide is wrong. And that is a respectable thing: We do not want others to die and so we stop them. We do it out of love and respect for life.
But again, the issue is allowing the patient control. Painful lingering is something no one wants to experience and is horrific to watch, as anyone who has had family members struggle with health issues in their last years of life can say. If those family members give advance directives stating Do not revive, do we still revive them? Generally, no. We allow that they have made a decision to take back control and allow their life to end when it is time.
As the statistics show, many people obtain the prescription for the lethal dose of drugs, but do not follow through. Perhaps this shows that there is comfort in just having the power to take control of ones life. Should we deny them that comfort?
Again, these are hard questions that Oregonians asked themselves when they voted on the law in 1994 and in 1997. The majority of Oregonians have decided that allowing a terminally ill patient to take control at the end of their life is their right. Now that the Supreme Court has opened the way for this law in Oregon, a vote for similar laws in other states will no doubt follow.
I think the important thing to remember in this issue is that it is not about death death will happen for the people who choose this path either way but that it is about taking control back of ones life from a physically and emotionally painful illness.
News editor Jean Mullins is a junior from Portland, Ore. She majors in English with a concentration in biomedical studies.