Death with Dignity or Criminal Act?

It had been more than seven months since Rick Miller was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer, which had spread to his bones, kidneys and brain. He had lost his voice, endured frequent headaches and pain in his legs and he was beginning to lose the ability to clearly communicate. His doctor said he had only a few weeks to live.

"Rick basically just said, 'I want to be able to control this process, and I want to be conscious and not a burden to my family at the end, and I can't face the pain and the degradation,'" said Nora Miller, his wife of 31 years.

So late one night, with Nora, their son, Nathan, and Nathan's fiancée beside him at home, the Portland, Ore., resident ate some applesauce mixed with a lethal dose of Seconal prescribed by his doctor and soon fell into a deep sleep as they held his hands.

"It was very peaceful," Miller recalled. "It was really like his body was ready to go. There wasn't much fight left."

Rick Miller died early on Nov. 10, 1999. He was 52.

He was one of more than 200 people since 1997 who have used Oregon's Death with Dignity law, which allows physician-assisted suicide for some terminally ill patients. The future of the law -- the only one of its kind in the country -- is in question as the Bush administration seeks to overturn it, arguing before the Supreme Court today that physicians who help speed a patient's death violate federal drug laws by improperly using medication.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, a group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson, said today that he believes the court ultimately will decide to overturn the Oregon law. The center filed an amicus brief in the case siding with the U.S. government.

President Bush has nominated Harriet Miers to replace O'Connor, who is retiring and may be replaced before the decision. If so, the case may be reargued at a future date.

"I think the case is close," Sekulow told reporters after this morning's hearing. "This is literally a life-and-death case. And at the end of the day, the question is, does the federal government have regulatory authority to engage in these life-and-death decisions. And I think the answer in the end will be yes, but it may be yes delayed."

However, Kathryn Tucker, director of legal affairs with Compassion and Choices, which supports physician-assisted suicide and represents the plaintiff-patients in the case, told reporters after the hearing she is disturbed the government might close the door to what she says may be the most humane options for terminally ill patients to take their lives.

"There was a very perverse argument made by the federal government that patients should somehow be relegated to bring about death without the use of controlled substances, meaning by means that are not humane, are not certain, are not peaceful," Tucker said. "And that's a perverse position for our federal government to take." Tucker also said she believes the decision will be in her favor due to the question of states' rights.

Long Debate Continues

The road to Gonzales v. Oregon was a long one. The law has been challenged since Oregon voters approved it by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin in 1994 and voted by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin against a proposal to repeal it in 1997 -- a few weeks after it went into effect following a previous injunction.

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