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Since 1998, about one in every 1,000 deaths in Oregon has been by assisted suicide; a total of 129 people by the end of 2002—fewer than proponents expected and opponents feared. Data from the Oregon State Health Division show that most who chose this route were older, well-educated, insured, enrolled in hospice care, and suffering from terminal cancer or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Almost all died at home; roughly half had a physician present. Most became unconscious within 10 minutes and died within 30 minutes; one took 37 hours.

Their three most common end-of-life concerns were loss of autonomy, decreased ability to participate in enjoyable activities, and loss of control over bodily functions.

It is often argued that better pain relief would make assisted suicide unnecessary, but Oregon’s results don’t support that contention: fewer than one in four who chose the option said they feared inadequate pain control.

In 2002, 58 prescriptions for lethal medication were written by 33 Oregon doctors. Of the patients who received the prescriptions, 36 died from the drug, 16 died from their disease, and six were still alive at the end of the year.

The 38 Oregonians who died by assisted suicide last year (two patients died using prescriptions they received in 2001) represented an 81 percent increase from 2001 and a five-year high. It is far too soon to tell whether that number is a statistical aberration or the beginning of a trend, but it will no doubt add fuel to the fire—and urgency to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s attempt to dismantle Oregon’s law.

Ashcroft ruled in November 2001 that the Death with Dignity Act was a violation of federal drug laws (the barbiturates used are DEA-controlled substances) and authorized federal agents to prosecute Oregon doctors who prescribe lethal doses. Ashcroft’s legal challenge was subsequently rejected by a U.S. Circuit Court judge in April 2002, and the law remained in effect. The Bush administration appealed, arguments were being heard in the Ninth Circuit Court as OAM went to press, and by this reading, a decision may have been rendered. Some 25 amicus curiae briefs were filed on both sides of the case, with hundreds of signatories—everyone from the relatives of people who chose assisted suicide (including McMurchie and Baltus) to physicians to legal experts to politicians.

Regardless of whether Ashcroft’s appeal is rejected or upheld, this case will very likely find its way slowly but inexorably to the U.S. Supreme Court—where proponents see hope in the sanctity of states’ rights and opponents see hope in what many view as the court’s increasingly conservative and political nature. In the meantime, throughout the appeals process, Oregon’s law will probably remain in force. According to Compassion in Dying’s Lee, “While the ball’s still in play, the courts tend to favor the status quo.”

It could be as long as three years before the issue reaches the Supreme Court. Terminal illness, on the other hand, tends to be in a bigger hurry.

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