Wednesday, October 05, 2005

[Supreme Court]

Oregon's Landmark Death With Dignity Law

Eleven years ago, Oregon passed a pretty radical initiative to legalize physician-assisted suicide.* (But just barely, 51% - 49%.) It bounced around in courtrooms for three years (always beating back challenges), and was finally tossed out by the Oregon legislature in 1997. That fall, it appeared on the ballot again, and this time Oregonians--never fond of legislative rebukes--approved it by a startling 20-point margin, 60%-40%.

Today the Supreme Court hears the case, under the dubious claim that it violates federal drug laws. I fear the worst. Death with Dignity was fastidiously crafted to answer questions critics had about the potential for abuse or depression-induced suicides. The main opposition to it remains religious, however, and the challenge today is a trojan horse to get the law thrown out to appease the moral qualms like those of John Ashcroft, who originally launched the effort to overturn the law. They may be arguing drugs, but they're still fighting for Terri Schiavo.

(It is also a classic case of federalism, pitting federal power against a state. Where will the conservative justices fall? They've seemed increasingly, ah ... activist, in their efforts to strengthen the federal government's hand in these turf wars. Recall, for example, Bush v. Gore.)

For those of you not familiar with the law, it has several safeguards:
  • The patient must be diagnosed with a terminal illness that will lead to death within six months
  • The patient then must make two oral and one written requests (the latter signed by two witnesses) for medication
  • The diagnosis and prognosis must be verified by a second physician
  • The patient must be evaluated for psychological health
In eight years, the law has been used by only 208 people, though a far higher number have gone through the process without taking the medication. People in this latter group (and even other terminal patients who consider the process) describe having the option as being a great relief. It brings some measure of control back into a seemingly uncontrollable situation. The law also continues to have broad support in Oregon and so far does not seem to have undermined civic society here. We have not turned into ghouls.

(I do wonder what colleagues of William Rehnquist will think about this law. With ages ranging from the old to very old, this may be a less ideological and more tactile question for the conservative justices than some of their younger ideological brethern. It will be interesting to see how that plays in.)

Among the tall mountains of innovative public policy Oregon has adopted over the past 30 years (the first bottle bill, public beaches, land-use planning, vote-by-mail), Death with Dignity rises like Everest. I chafe at the thought that John Ashcroft's petty morality may be sufficient to flatten it.

*There's a political question about the name. Proponents like to call it "physician assisted dying," which is actually more in keeping with the spirit of the law. Opponents call it euthanasia--a gross corruption of both the spirit and letter of the law. In popular usage, the phrase physician-assisted suicide has become the norm, and I'll use it here.


iggi said...

i don't really know what to think of this going before the Supreme Court. i support DwD less because i plan on using and more because i don't like the idea of someone telling me i can't choose the time/place/dignity in which i want to go.

the Right to Lifer's really want this overturned. weird how they're all for suffering people living until they die a horrible death, but they're all for send a poor healthy 18 year old kid to Iraq to get his head blown off. i won't even mention capital punishment...

Jeff Alworth said...

The interesting thing is how little controversy this law stirs in Oregon now. It was a HUGE deal 8 years ago, but now that we've lived with it, the edge is off. If it does miraculously survive this challenge, it will be interesting to see if other states follow our lead.