A RIGHT TO DIE?
November 26, 1997
The residents of Oregon voted earlier this month to maintain its law legalizing doctor-assisted suicide. The law, which has yet to be used, has been at the center of a national debate over whether or not patients have a right to die. Following a report from Oregon by Lee Hochberg, Phil Ponce discusses the religious, legal and health issues surrounding assisted suicide.
LEE HOCHBERG: The battle in Oregon over physician-assisted suicide has been going on at the ballot box, in the court, and in the legislature since 1994. That year Oregon voters approved a ballot initiative allowing doctors to prescribe lethal medication if a terminally ill patient of sound mind requests it. A second doctor has to agree the patient is terminally ill.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
November 26, 1997:
Phil Ponce leads a debate over the morality and legality of assisted suicide.
June 26, 1997:
The Supreme Court rules against doctor-assisted suicides.
June 26, 1997:
The legal details of the Supreme Court ruling.
January 8, 1997:
The ethical battle of physician-assisted suicide.
April 8, 1996:
An examination of medical ethics.
April 8, 1996:
The right to die debate.
October 7, 1996:
The Supreme Court looks at doctor-assisted suicide.
PBS' FRONTLINE looks at Dr. Kevorkian.
Immediately, a federal judge issued an injunction against the law, saying it failed to protect depressed judgment-impaired people from suicide. An appellate court in San Francisco struck down that ruling, and the law stayed on hold as the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ironically, in the meantime, two landmark rulings which give the states the right to ban assisted suicide came out of the Supreme Court. The court let stand laws of New York and Washington State that prevent assisted suicide. Justices said there was no constitutional right to suicide. But the court also suggested--just as states can ban the practice--they can decide for themselves if they want to allow it.
Last month, the High Court ruled on the Oregon case. It refused to hear the challenges to Oregon's law. That was effectively a legal go-ahead for the state to try its right-to-die law. But before that could happen, Oregon voters had to decide on a new ballot measure that would repeal the law. Placed on the ballot by the legislature, the emotional campaign was led by the Catholic Church. The campaign spent $4 million trying to convince voters that people who choose assisted suicide might not die immediately.
VIDEO SPOKESPERSON: In 15 minutes a doctor's going to give him a lethal drug prescription, but what Billy doesn't know is that he won't die right away, and choke on his own vomit, and painful convulsions--
LEE HOCHBERG: Those who supported the right to die countered with an appeal to individual rights.
OLDER PERSON: I'm 80 years old, and I intend to live a long time. But how I die is up to me, not some crackpot politicians in Salem.
WOMAN: There's a lot of celebrating for the "No on 51" campaign. They--
"What part of 'no' does the federal government fail to understand?"
LEE HOCHBERG: Last week, Oregon voters refused to revoke the right to die law by a resounding 60 to 40 percent margin as a means to open the way for assisted suicide. But Friday, the federal government stepped in. Prodded by Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Henry Hyde of Illinois--both opponents of assisted suicide--the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency threatened Oregon doctors to aid in a suicide with the loss of their privileged prescribed medicine. Doctors need DEA approval to prescribe drugs. Oregon doctors, like Peter Goodwin, are stunned by the threat.
DR. PETER GOODWIN: It tells me that the DEA just doesn't understand the reality of death in America; that this is an appropriate, reasonable, rational response to a problem that patients perceive, but the DEA, in their ivory tower, doesn't.
LEE HOCHBERG: Members of Oregon's congressional delegation bristled at what they call federal interference. Sen. Ron Wyden says Oregonians definitively voted "no" when asked to surrender their right to die.
SEN. RON WYDEN: And my question today is: What part of "no" does the federal government fail to understand?
LEE HOCHBERG: But assisted suicide critics, like Portland psychiatrist Greg Hamilton, say the issue is about far more than states' rights.
DR. GREG HAMILTON: The people of Oregon have unleashed a terrible tragedy not only on this state but on other states in America, across America, and the world. It is entirely appropriate for the DEA to enforce federal laws requiring that Oregonians, as well as other Americans, use drugs to heal people and not to kill them.
LEE HOCHBERG: It's unclear how aggressive the Clinton administration will be against Oregon doctors. In the meantime, church leaders and other suicide opponents are threatening another lawsuit to keep the law from being implemented.