Oregon Suicide Law Faces Federal Threat

ByABC News
November 23, 2001, 1:05 PM

P O R T L A N D, Ore., Nov. 23 -- Jim Romney has never been one to let life pass him by. An avid hunter and fisherman, he has a wife and four children. But this June the 56-year-old retired high-school principal was diagnosed with an illness that will ultimately kill him, Lou Gehrig's disease.

"As the disease progresses I would be totally paralyzed, unable to breathe, swallow or speak. To me there's no dignity in that," Romney said.

Romney and his family have decided to use Oregon's assisted suicide law when the time comes probably within the next two years. Under Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, two doctors must agree that a patient has less than six months to live. Only at that point can a doctor prescribe the lethal medication. But it is up to the patient to actually take it.

In the four years since the Oregon law went into effect, around 70 dying patients have elected to use it to legally end their lives.

Calling in the DEA

All that will change if Attorney General John Ashcroft has his way. Earlier this month, Ashcroft issued an order for federal drug agents to go after doctors who use drugs to help patients die. The order would prohibit doctors from prescribing lethal doses of federally controlled drugs to terminally ill patients.

The state of Oregon sued the Justice Department, arguing that Ashcroft's order violated the state's right to regulate the practice of medicine as it sees fit. A federal judge in Portland issued a temporary block of the Ashcroft order, and on Tuesday extended the block for five months while he considers the issue.

In the meantime, those who support Oregon's assisted suicide law the only one in the nation are anxious to protect it.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, is a prominent supporter of the law. He does not think the Justice Department should get involved. "It's an unparalleled intrusion of the federal government into the practice of medicine, and a slap in the face of Oregonians who have stood up and made a very tough decision, " Kitzhaber said.