Oregon's Suicide

The tragic Oregon law that turned doctors into killers wasn't merely a local matter.

It implicated the federal government as well.

In order to prescribe deadly doses of controlled medicines, doctors needed the permission of the U.S. attorney general.

In the last administration, that office was glad to give the green light. But allowing medicines to kill runs counter to the very purpose the federal government has in regulating medicines to begin with.

So Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he would return to a policy in which only legitimate drugs and doses were allowed by regulators. In a letter to Drug Enforcement Administration head Asa Hutchinson, he said in 2001 that henceforth, if doctors chose to be poison-peddlers, the government would suspend or revoke their licenses.

Ashcroft's move would have effectively invalidated Oregon's assisted-suicide law, and Oregon's attorney general didn't like it. A federal appeals court agreed and gave him a victory on May 25.

Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers said he was fighting for the law — and for his turf. “From our perspective, this is a clear defense not just of the Death With Dignity Act but a clear defense of a state's authority to regulate its own medical practices,” his office said.

Of course a state has every right to regulate its own medical practices. But assisted suicide isn't a medical practice.

For instance, take one troubling fact that has haunted the suicide law from the beginning: the prevalence of botched suicides.

Shortly after the Oregon suicide law went into effect, Catherine Hamilton, a member of Physicians for Compassionate Care, taped a workshop at Portland Community College called “Assisted Suicide: Counseling Patients/Clients.”

Keynote speaker Cynthia Barrett, an attorney, referred to the botched-suicide problem. Barrett told of “a man who completed the required state forms and then took a physician-prescribed lethal medication with his family looking on. Soon, he began suffering unsavory and disturbing symptoms — symptoms severe enough to traumatize his wife, who called 911. Paramedics took the man to a Portland hospital and revived him. He was later taken to a nursing facility. … He died sometime later.”

Botched legal suicides still plague Oregon.

The Oregon Department of Human Services' recently released report on assisted suicide for 2003 describes a patient who drank one-half of the fatal medication he had been prescribed. But then he vomited a third of it.

He didn't finish his poison, but the small amount he had consumed began to take effect. Usually, if a patient survives the first six hours after taking the short-acting barbiturate, he will most likely live. Not so for this unfortunate man. He lived another 48 hours before dying.

Here we see the basic difference between medical practice and suicide. In a botched medical practice, a patient's health could be diminished or his life might be endangered. In a botched suicide, his life is prolonged.

Assisted-suicide opponents point out that botched suicides make the law vulnerable to abuse. In many cases, the doctor is not present when the poison is drunk. What is done with unconsumed poison? When a patient's suicide is botched, what if he kills himself another way? In a case where a frightened patient vomits his own suicide prescription, where is the so-called death with dignity?

And some suicides that aren't botched are nothing like what the law intended. What about the many cases of suicide patients who were found to be clinically depressed? Are these mercy killings or just a society agreeing with a chemically unbalanced man's despair? Are the law's supporters outraged that these people are wrongly killed, or has the assisted-suicide law deadened sensitivities?

What we forget is that doctor-assisted suicide will always be a matter of the strong preying on the sick and weak. It is diabolical to instruct doctors to approach patients at their lowest point mentally and say, “I can help you end it all.”

On May 25, the appeals court didn't ratify Oregon's right to “regulate its own medical practices.”

It exempted Oregon from laws that prohibit poison.