: views from the Hill

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Top court to review assisted suicide / Oregon lets doctors provide death drugs

A Chron article by Bob Egelko today titled, Top court to review assisted suicide, wraps up the latest news on assisted suicide.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Bush administration's challenge to Oregon's voter-approved Death With Dignity law that allows doctors to prescribe fatal doses of drugs for terminally ill patients who can then self-administer a lethal dose.

Attorney General Ashcroft (and now AG Gonzales, one assumes) would have it that the Oregon law violates the Controlled Substance Act. Ashcroft insists that federal drug law prohibits doctors from prescribing fatal doses of federally-regulated drugs -- barbituates, in this case. Doctors so doing, said Ashcroft, will lose their federal drug prescription licenses in addition to facing criminal charges. Is this truly what the Controlled Substance Act was intended to control?

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, bless their liberal hearts, said that Ashcroft was outta line and interfering with state law sanctioned by the Supreme Court decision in 1997 which left the law-making on assisted suicide up to the individual states.

The SCOTUS will hear arguments when the next term starts in October -- which may be with or without Chief Justice Rehnquist, with or without his replacement. What difference will Rehnquist's presence or absence make to the ruling expected mid-2006? Whatever the ruling, it will affect whatever laws California may enact in the mean time.

Arguments counter to the Oregon law run along religious grounds and right-to-life issues and raise concerns about possible suicide pressures brought to bear on the disabled. Arguments also run along slippery slopes and if now this, what next?

Does Oregon just allow prescribing death-inducing doses of drugs willy-nilly? No. The patient must be mentally competent. Two doctors must say that the patient is terminally ill, with death forecast within six months. The request must be renewed within 15 days.

In the past seven years, 171 Oregonians have taken advantage -- two a month on average. How is Death With Dignity that much different from existing laws that allow a patient to refuse treatment, request that no artificial means be used to extend life, or insist on a Do Not Resuscitate order?

Hunter S. Thompson just died of what is alleged to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Speculation is high as to why, but no one is saying that he had only six months to live. Some say he was in pain and declining health and dreaded living out his life the way he was. Maybe so. Some say he had lost good friends like Warren Zevon and dreaded the direction the country was taking. Maybe so. Am I to decide that his decision to cut his life short was wrong and he could not make that decision, or having made it, not follow through? Who am I to decide that? If I'd been his wife or his daughter, I might -- maybe -- have had a say in the matter. Or not.

My oldest brother killed himself at twenty-nine in a depression-spawned black ooze. Another brother, diagnosed as terminally ill at age forty-eight, made the decision to keep fighting until the last minute. He almost made it to fifty-one. Did he keep fighting because he knew what suicide does to family and didn't want to put us through all that again? I don't think so. I think he was just the way he'd always been and had a robust scientific curiosity about the whole process of dying -- Death, The Final Adventure. ... except for him, maybe not. Case opted for cryonics and hoped there'd be more adventures further down the road.

Suicide. Suicide. Thirty years later, I am still affected by the unexpected sudden death of Skip. Would things have turned out differently if we'd known what he was going through thousands of miles away? Would we have been able to talk with him, get him into treatment that would have mitigated the black ooze and kept him with us? I come back again and again to the knowledge that one never knows, one never knows whether things could've turned out differently. If not this time, when?

But the Oregon law is not intended for black ooze and suicide. It's intended for people with a short time to live who would rather check out now.

I am glad we had time with Case above and beyond the six months or so he was originally quoted. I am glad he decided to stick around until the bitter end, but who am I to tell someone given a terminal prognosis that they can't die now and avoid the time dragging on and on until ... they die anyway?

Why can't the patient decide now that they'd rather not spend that time, thanks. Why aren't they allowed to make that decision?

Who are we to play God?

Update: Juan Thompson gave an interview to the Rocky Mountain News. The resulting article says, Few, if any, can conceive of Thompson's reasoning in committing suicide, according to his relatives. But it is a thought process with its own beautifully dark logic, they say.

"I've known for many, many years that this is how Hunter would go," Juan Thompson said. "There was just no question that when the time came he would choose to do it himself. The idea of Hunter lying in a hospital bed with tubes, gasping for breath, is so contrary to his whole life and purpose and drive.

"It was just a question of when. This was a big surprise and I didn't expect it to be now, but the means was exactly as we expected."

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