October 15, 1997 in Nation/World

Court Leaves Right To Die Up To Oregon Justices Let First U.S. Assisted-Suicide Law Stand

V. Dion Haynes Chicago Tribune
 

The U.S. Supreme Court refused Tuesday to hear a lawsuit filed by opponents of Oregon’s assisted-suicide law, a decision that clears the way for physicians there to legally help terminally ill patients end their lives.

However, Oregon voters will have the chance to repeal the assisted-suicide law in mail-in balloting in November.

Assisted-suicide advocates and opponents were hoping the Supreme Court would settle the thorny question of whether Oregon’s right-to-die law is constitutional. Instead, the court’s decision to dismiss the case on a procedural matter has added more uncertainty.

“What it all boils down to is that the assisted-suicide law could go into effect before the election,” said Peter Cogswell, spokesman for Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers. Cogswell said the law will go into effect within a few weeks, as soon as a District Court judge signs the order dismissing the case.

“If the anti-assisted-suicide measure passes, (the repeal) wouldn’t go into effect for 30 days. So we could have a confusing period when assisted suicide is in effect before it becomes outlawed,” he added.

Oregon voters approved the Death With Dignity Act, the nation’s first assisted-suicide law, in November 1994. But the measure has been tangled in a series of court battles for the past three years and never has taken effect.

Several terminally ill patients filed suit and persuaded U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan to declare the law unconstitutional. The patients said their illnesses sometimes caused psychological disorders and suicidal tendencies. They argued that terminally ill people often are too de pressed to make informed decisions about ending their lives and that the law deprives them of protection from self-harm.

But in February, a panel of federal appellate judges ordered Hogan to dismiss the case because the plaintiffs didn’t sufficiently demonstrate they would be harmed by the law. The justices declared the plaintiffs’ arguments groundless because they weren’t experiencing suicidal depression during the course of the case.

In late June, the Supreme Court issued rulings on two other assisted-suicide cases. The high court upheld laws in Washington and New York states banning physician-assisted suicide, ruling that terminally ill patients have no constitutional right to end their lives, but leaving the issue up to the states to decide.

People opposed to assisted suicide in Oregon took the rulings as an indication that the court would strike down the state’s right-to-die law, but the Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday means the appellate ruling stands.

“Lawyers in the Washington and New York cases argued about how assisted suicide is dangerous to minorities and people in poverty and those are the same kind of arguments we are making,” said lawyer Richard Coleson, who represents the plaintiffs. “We could try to find other clients who might fit the court’s (criteria for suicidal depression),” he added. “We’re still working on what we will do.”

Meanwhile, advocates of Measure 51, the ballot initiative aimed at repealing Oregon’s assisted-suicide law, says the Supreme Court’s action gives their campaign more impetus.

The campaign grew out of concerns by some legislators that the assisted-suicide law, instead of providing a humane escape for terminally ill patients enduring excruciating pain, could subject those unsuccessful in their attempts to more needless suffering. They cite studies from the Netherlands, where assisted suicide is practiced, showing that some patients often live despite taking lethal doses of medication.

So far, opinion polls show that the number of voters supporting and opposing assisted suicide to be almost the same.

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ANOTHER VOTE

Oregon voters approved the Death With Dignity Act, the nation’s first assisted-suicide law, in 1994. They will have a chance to repeal the law this November when Initiative 51 goes to a vote.


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