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Assisted Suicide: A Way of Death in Oregon

Church reacts with sorrow to first official occurrence under the law

BY Hazel Whitman

April 05-11, 1998 Issue | Posted 4/5/98 at 1:00 PM

 

PORTLAND, Ore.—“Let's allow this grave news to inspire us to reach out to those who are terminally ill.” That was the reaction of Portland Archbishop John Vlazny to word last month of Oregon's first reported suicide.

“At this time,” Archbishop Vlazny said, “I believe it is especially important that we reach out to one another to strengthen our resolve that no one feel abandoned in his or her final illness.”

A Portland woman in her mid-80s with breast cancer died March 24 after taking a lethal prescription of barbiturates mixed with Maple syrup followed by some brandy. She reportedly died “peacefully” while asleep about a half-hour later, with her family and her doctor at her side.

The woman's family asked that she remain anonymous. She did make an audio tape recording a few days before she died. In the tape she said she is looking forward to dying “because, being I was always active, I cannot possibly see myself living out two more months like this…. I will be relieved of all the stress I have.”

Archbishop Vlazny said he was “deeply saddened” the news. “The suicide of this elderly woman can only bring anguish to those who have resisted the public policy initiatives that changed the law in Oregon.”

There has been at least one other publicly announced doctor-assisted suicide in Oregon under the “Death with Dignity Act.” This person was an adult who had cancer. Other people might have already killed themselves under the law and not disclosed details. State officials said they will not issue a report on how the law is working until at least 10 deaths have been recorded.

While a spokeswoman for the Hemlock Society responded to the news with “Hooray for the people of Oregon,” others joined the archbishop in expressing sorrow.

“This is a tragic day for Oregon and our nation,” said Bob Castagna of the Oregon Catholic Conference.

Castagna said those against the doctor-assisted suicide law are still working toward having it outlawed. Currently the U.S. Justice Department is examining a Drug Enforcement Administration opinion that deadly medication violates medical standards.

Catholic physician Edmund Pellegrino of Georgetown University has been an outspoken foe of Oregon's law. He maintains that a dignified death is not brought on with an overdose of pills.

“A dignified and human death is one in which we participate in the mystery which is at the root of our existence as creatures,” the doctor said. “In a dignified death we affirm ourselves as persons by giving ourselves over to God's presence even in our most despairing moments, just as Jesus did in the awful hours of Gethsemane and Golgotha.”

Another doctor, Gregory Hamilton, a psychiatrist and president of Physicians for Compassionate Care, expressed grief not only for the deceased and family members—but for his profession and all of America as well.

“This is a terrible thing because people's lives are no longer being equally valued,” Hamilton said. “Suicide doesn't take place in a vacuum, and when a doctor writes a prescription for them to use to kill themselves, they are agreeing that that person's life is no longer as valuable as the lives of the rest of us.”

Despite staunch opposition from the Catholic Church, Oregon voters have stood by the concept of assisted suicide. In 1994, just 51% of the state's voters approved Measure 16. It was the first law anywhere, ever to legalize doctor-assisted suicide.

A series of legal challenges followed, and in November Oregon voters, by a lopsided margin of 60% to 40%, declined to repeal the 1994 law.

Hazel Whitman writes from Portland, Oregon.