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Assisted Suicide Law Ruled Unconstitutional Measure Would Discriminate Against Terminally Ill, Judge Says

Fri., Aug. 4, 1995, midnight

What would have been the first law in the world allowing doctors to prescribe lethal overdoses to dying patients was ruled unconstitutional Thursday by a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan found the measure unfairly discriminates against the dying.

“There is little assurance that only competent terminally ill persons will voluntarily die,” he wrote in his decision. “Some ‘good results’ cannot outweigh other lives lost due to unconstitutional errors and abuses.”

Passed by voters last November, the “Oregon Death with Dignity Act” was blocked by a court challenge Dec. 7, the day before it was to have become law. Had it gone into effect as scheduled, it would have been the first such law in the world.

In May, Australia’s northern territory passed a similar assisted suicide law. Prosecutors in the Netherlands have been tolerating doctor-assisted euthanasia for several years, although the practice is not legal.

The Oregon measure required at least two doctors to diagnose a terminal illness and rule the patient is mentally competent. It required the patient make the request in writing, signed by two witnesses, and required a 48-hour waiting period before the medication was turned over.

Neither doctors nor pharmacists were compelled to comply with patients’ requests for a lethal drug dose.

Hogan, who heard arguments in the case three months ago, ruled the law violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

Opponents, including the National Right to Life Coalition, successfully argued it unconstitutionally discriminated against the terminally ill.

But the state contended the law placed the burden of the decision solely on the patient, and that the state had no role.

The state had tried to compare the assisted suicide measure with laws allowing the sale of alcohol, tobacco and guns, arguing that citizens have a right to risk death.

Hogan disagreed, saying “the majority has not accepted this situation for themselves, and there is no rational basis for imposing it on the terminally ill.”

The law’s supporters said they would appeal the ruling.

“What about my constitutional rights? I’m not asking anybody to do anything to anybody else,” said Michael Vernon, an AIDS patient who is asking the judge to exempt him from the injunction so he may obtain a lethal prescription. “I’m simply asking for the right to self-determination, and I thought our Constitution granted those things.”

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