Court to Hear Oregon
Suicide Law Case
By BRAD CAIN, AP from
the washingtonpost.com on the Web, September 29, 2005
PORTLAND, Ore. Sept. 28 -- The
Bush administration is challenging Oregon's assisted suicide law, arguing that
hastening someone's death is an improper use of medication and thus violates
federal drug laws.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case on Oct. 5.
Supporters of the assisted suicide law say a favorable high court ruling could
lead other states to follow Oregon's lead.
||Julie McMurchie holds a photo of her mother,
Peggy Sutherland, at her home in a Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005 photo, in
Portland, Ore. Sutherland took her own life under Oregon's Death
With Dignity law, one-of-a-kind legislation enacted in 1997 that
allows terminally ill patients to obtain lethal doses of medication
from their doctors. The Bush administration is challenging the
measure, arguing that hastening someone's death is an improper use
of medication and thus violates federal drug laws. (AP Photo/Rick
Oregonians approved the law in two
separate votes, and many have come to see it as part of their state's identity
-- something that sets them apart from the rest of the nation.
Still, only a tiny portion of terminally ill Oregonians have used the law to
take their lives -- 208 people, representing about one in 1,000 deaths.
Take the case of Julie McMurchie's family. She and her four siblings
watched as their 68-year-old mother, Peggy Sutherland, lifted a lethal dose of
barbiturates to her lips.
It was difficult for them to accept that their mother was about to die,
McMurchie said. But Sutherland was in a long and painful struggle with
lung cancer, and her children supported her decision to end her life, McMurchie
"We were all hugging and kissing her and telling her it was OK to let go,"
McMurchie said. "Mom held up the glass of medication and said, 'I don't
think anyone understands how much pain I've been in.' Then she drank it
herself. She was asleep in five minutes and she died within 20 minutes."
Sutherland took her own life under Oregon's Death With Dignity law, legislation
that took effect in 1997 that allows terminally ill patients to obtain lethal
doses of medication from their doctors. No other state has such a law.
The reasons for the law's solid public support are connected with Oregon's
famous independent streak, said Jim Moore, who teaches political science at
Pacific University in Forest Grove.
"This is about access to assisted suicide, not necessarily being personally in
favor of assisted suicide," Moore said.
George Eighmey, executive director of Compassion in Dying of Oregon, a group
that advises assisted suicide patients in Oregon, said the law offers terminally
ill patients a humane way to end their suffering.
"The law is working well, in the sense that the few individuals who do use it
are individuals are strongly independent; well-educated, financially secure and
family-oriented," Eighmey said. "These are people who wish to exit on
their own terms."
Opponents include some doctors and religious organizations.
"Assisted suicide is a reversal of the proper role of a doctor as a healer,
comforter and consoler to an improper role of the physician causing a patient's
death," said Dr. Kenneth Stevens of Physicians for Compassionate Care, a leading
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has filed briefs in the Supreme
Court case, contends that Oregon "is sending a very negative message to sick,
elderly and vulnerable patients that their lives are not worth protecting and
their suicides are not worth preventing," spokesman Richard Doerflinger said.
State officials say the law has worked smoothly, although one terminally ill
cancer patient who tried to end his life with drugs awoke three days later,
alert and talkative. The man died of natural causes about two weeks later.
The state Board of Pharmacy is looking into the matter.
Dr. Peter Rasmussen, a Salem oncologist, said he has helped more than 10 of his
terminally ill patients end their lives with prescriptions.
"In one case, there were members of a bikers club who came to say their goodbyes
to their friend," he said. "It almost had a party atmosphere, because
that's what the patient wanted."