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RICHARD HOLMES, terminally Ill Patient: So I don’t have colon cancer anymore, but I have liver cancer that can’t be operated on. It’s inoperable.
LEE HOCHBERG: Many Oregonians with terminal diseases reacted in horror as U.S Attorney General John Ashcroft essentially shut down the state’s assisted suicide program.
RICHARD HOLMES: Well, I was sitting in that chair watching television, and I thought, “What in the hell is he doing?” You know, it’s ridiculous.
LEE HOCHBERG: Richard Holmes’ doctors say he has three months to live, and his final days with cancer could be horrid. The Portland man had been counting on his doctors to hasten his death with a prescription of barbiturates.
RICHARD HOLMES: Why not take the comfortable way out, where you know what you’re doing, you say good-bye to everybody, and drink a glass of stuff? To me, it makes sense. I want the choice.
LEE HOCHBERG: It’s a choice Oregon residents may be losing. Since the 1994 passage of a ballot measure, Oregonians judged mentally competent with fewer than six months to live, have been able to get from their doctor a lethal prescription and ingest it under their own control. After that measure was challenged in court, voters resoundingly passed it again in 1997. Since then, 70 terminally ill patients have used physician- assisted suicide. But early this month, Attorney General John Ashcroft directed the Drug Enforcement Agency to revoke doctor’s licenses to prescribe drugs if they used those drugs to aid a death — telling the Drug Enforcement Agency “assisting suicide is not a legitimate medical purpose. There are important distinctions between intentionally causing a patient’s death and providing, medication, to alleviate pain.”
JOHN ASHCROFT: I certainly believe that people who are in pain should be helped and assisted in every way possible, that the drugs should be used to mitigate their pain but I believe the law of the United States of America which requires that drugs not be used for… Except for legitimate health purposes that those laws need to be enforced and that’s my responsibility.
LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon oncologist Bill Petty agrees with Ashcroft.
DR. BILL PETTY, assisted-suicide opponent: The appropriate role is for a physician to cure when possible, comfort always, and never kill. Once we start helping a person kill him or herself, it becomes very murky, and so it’s a very dangerous thing. And so physicians should never get on that ground.
LEE HOCHBERG: Richard Holmes voted for President Bush last November, and wonders what became of Bush’s avowed support for states’ rights.
RICHARD HOLMES: The people of Oregon voted it in. Leave it alone! The people have spoken! I mean, what’s the point of voting if the government can walk in and say, “No, you can’t do that. That doesn’t matter. We’re going to do this. My way, John Ashcroft’s way.”
SPOKESMAN: The motion is agreed to.
LEE HOCHBERG: This isn’t the first time that the federal government has tried to intervene against Oregon’s assisted suicide law. Congressional Republicans have twice tried to pass laws that would have imprisoned doctors who assisted in suicides. Ashcroft himself sponsored a bill against physician aid in dying when he was a senator. None of those bills passed. Ashcroft’s supporters say the current edict doesn’t overturn Oregon’s law; it just says doctors can’t prescribe barbiturates.
DR. BILL PETTY: The Attorney General is saying you cannot use these drugs, which are federally controlled, to do that. That’s all he’s saying. So the law’s still in effect. Those who promote it just have to figure out other ways to do it.
LEE HOCHBERG: Are there other safe ways?
DR. BILL PETTY: I don’t know, you’d have to ask them.
LEE HOCHBERG: Longtime advocates of aid in dying, like Portland family practitioner Peter Goodwin, says there are no other safe ways. They say dying patients will use morphine, which can take much longer to end life, or they will turn to even more desperate measures.
DR. PETER GOODWIN, assisted-suicide supporter: Patients are going to shoot their heads off, patients are going to use plastic bags and perhaps vomit. Patients are going to use medications that are going to be ineffectual.
LEE HOCHBERG: He is suspicious of the reasons why the federal government intervened.
DR. PETER GOODWIN: The law is working perfectly: No abuses of the elderly, no abuses of the disabled, no slippery slope. So what is this reason for it? It is only dogma. It has nothing to do with patient care.
SPOKESPERSON: We felt we would be able to demonstrate a compelling reason to the court for granting the temporary restraining order.
LEE HOCHBERG: On Nov. 8, a federal judge in Portland temporarily restrained Ashcroft’s ruling, giving Oregon’s terminally ill until next tomorrow to get prescriptions to end their lives. Holmes thinks he’ll be able to get his pills. Other terminal patients, like Robert Schwartz of Portland, have their pills too. But Schwartz– who has AIDS, and doctors say has only two months to live– says the temporary reprieve won’t help patients in the long run.
ROBERT SCHWARTZ, terminally ill patient: That doesn’t do my roommate any good for when his time comes, if he chooses to go that way. The few friends that I do have left, it doesn’t do them good. It doesn’t do all the old people good.
LEE HOCHBERG: Some doctors say they now fear the government will punish them for treating their gravely ill patients. At Schwartz’s checkup, his doctor, who asked us to hide his identity, told Schwartz he’s afraid to be at his bedside when Schwartz ingests his life-ending prescription.
DOCTOR: I think it will affect, probably, my being there, and I think it may be dangerous right now.
DOCTOR: I’m scared of a DEA agent coming and knocking on my door, the publicity that would ensue, the charges that would ensue, and the ruining of my practice is what I’m really scared of.
LEE HOCHBERG: The Ashcroft directive says the government won’t be hounding doctors who dispense pain relief, but critics fear doctors will be afraid to prescribe painkillers anyway, for fear of over prescribing and causing accidental death. In a sad postscript, Goodwin, who fought years for Oregon’s law, was recently diagnosed with lymphoma, and under Ashcroft’s directive, would be unable to legally get aid in dying if he ever needs it. As a physician, though, he says he’ll be able to get whatever drugs he needs to assist him.
DR. PETER GOODWIN: I have friends, you know, many friends in the medical community. They’re going to help me. And not only that, I already have barbiturates if I want to use them. I’ll use them. How unfair is that, that I can get it as a physician and a patient can’t?
LEE HOCHBERG: Supporters of aid in dying say they’ll fight to have the stay of Ashcroft’s directive extended, and failing that, will fight the matter to the U.S Supreme Court.