Mary X. Wants to Save Her Right to Die

Mary X. describes herself as a fighter. And that's why she wants the right to end her life on her own terms, with drugs prescribed by her physician.

Mary, an Oregon woman who asked that her real name not be used because her grandchildren have not been informed of her decision to take advantage of the state's Death With Dignity Act, received a prescription for a lethal dose of pentobarbital from her doctor, though she says she has no immediate plans to take it.

"I want the option, not knowing what is down the road," she said. "I'm one of those people who like to be in control. I'm a fighter."

Mary doesn't know what's down the road not only because she is battling ovarian cancer, but because Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, which allows doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who request them, has been challenged by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

In November, Ashcroft reversed an earlier U.S. Department of Justice decision that Oregon's law did not conflict with the federal Controlled Substances Act, and ordered the Drug Enforcement Administration to begin pursuing legal action against doctors in the state who prescribe potentially fatal doses of drugs for their patients.

Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers filed suit challenging Ashcroft's decision, and after Ashcroft asked a U.S. District Court judge to dismiss the suit, the judge granted Oregon's request for a temporary restraining order until he rules on the case. Arguments are scheduled to begin on March 22 in the case, which is unlikely to be resolved before the appeals process is exhausted.

Doctors say that since the Bush administration's challenge of the law, there has been an increase in the number of requests they have received for suicide assistance.

Preying on the Weak?

Ashcroft's effort to end the law, which was twice approved by Oregon voters and has allowed 91 people to end their lives with doctor-prescribed drugs since it went into effect in October 1997, pleased opponents of the act, who say it encourages the notion that the lives of people with terminal illnesses are not worth as much as the lives of healthy people.

They say it preys on terminal patients' depression, fear of pain and concerns about becoming a burden on others — none of which, they say, should be a reason for people to end their lives.

Mary, who is still alive nearly a year after doctors told her she would be dead in less than six months of ovarian cancer, does not give the impression of the kind of person who opponents of the Death With Dignity Act say will become its victims — those battling depression, their will and reason softened by constant doses of painkillers.

When asked, as delicately as possible, about how she outlived her prognosis, she laughed and said in her clear, strong voice, "Oh yeah, I'm still here. I'm a fighter."

Allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who say they want them strips those people of their dignity, rather than providing them with a dignified option for ending their lives, opponents of the law say.

A Change of Terms

The issue is not whether people should have the right to end their lives — which is provided under Oregon law — but whether physicians should be allowed to take part in the act, according to Dr. Gregory Hamilton, a spokesman for Physicians for Compassionate Care.

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