Oregon Suicide Law Faces Federal Threat

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.

Some physicians worry about the prospect of having law enforcement personnel scrutinize how they practice medicine. "The idea of having a drug agent looking through your records to see if he thought you were practicing good medicine, that concept is frightening to a physician," said Dr. Peter Rasmussen, a vocal supporter of assisted suicide who has joined the legal challenge of the Ashcroft order.

But many in Oregon oppose the law, including doctors who feel that they should not be writing lethal prescriptions. "It's an inherent conflict of interest for doctors to be on the one hand the advocates for health and well-being for patients, and on the other hand being literally the deliverer of a hastened death," said Dr. William Toffler, national director of Physicians for Compassionate Care, an Oregon-based group that opposes assisted suicide.

Toffler believes there should be a uniform policy in all 50 states. He is also concerned about the Oregon law's confidentiality protections, which bar the release of information about patients who have used the law to end their lives. Toffler says the secrecy makes it hard to evaluate how the law is being used.

Controlling How One Will Die

Jim Romney says he sees no problem with Oregon's system. He plans to continue to live his life hoping he will have the legal right to die when he needs it. As disease robs him of the ability to control his own destiny, he says, Oregon's law will allow him to at least control how he will spend his last moments.

"My vision of my final moment is going to be dying with my family nearby," Romney said. The question is whether he will still be allowed to do it with his doctor's help.