Suicide and choice


IN A gutsy ruling earlier this month, Attorney General Janet Reno angered some conservative members of Congress by removing legal obstacles to Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law. They promptly introduced legislation to undo her ruling.

Let's hope the attorney general -- and the democratic process -- prevail.

Physician-assisted suicide is one of those achingly complicated issues with true believers on each side. Like abortion, it offers competing views of rights and responsibilities, and no easy resolutions.

But democratic debate is exactly what this country needs to shape sound public policy for an issue on which people hold such strong and contradictory beliefs.

When it addressed this issue last year, the U.S. Supreme Court found no constitutional right to a physician's help in dying. Its ruling, however, does allow states to make their own laws.

Several states have already had prolonged debates on this issue, and some have held referendums in which voters were asked to decide whether and under what circumstances physician-assisted suicide should be legal.

First among 50

Oregon has the distinction of being the only state in which voters have actually passed such a measure. In fact, voters there have twice voted to legalize assisted suicide.

In 1994, Oregon approved a measure legalizing physician-assisted suicide under certain conditions. The margin was slim, 51 percent to 49 percent.

The second vote came last fall, after the legislature forced another referendum in hopes of repealing the law. That effort failed by a much wider margin, 60 percent to 40 percent. Voters apparently resented lawmakers' efforts to undo the will of the majority.

Ms. Reno's decision honors that majority by reversing a pronouncement from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Its administrator, Thomas Constantine, had responded to the alarm of some congressional leaders by promptly issuing a warning that physician-assisted suicide was not a legitimate medical use of drugs under federal laws and that any physician prescribing lethal doses of drugs under Oregon's law would face federal sanctions. (Ms. Reno has since said that the warning was not cleared by her.)

Despite that threat, Oregon's law, held up since 1994 by legal challenges, finally went into effect.

Watching the numbers

Until Ms. Reno's ruling, only three terminally ill patients in Oregon had made use of the law. Now, unless Congress meddles further, Oregon voters will be able to see whether that number will change significantly if physicians don't have to worry about reprisals from the DEA.

They will be able to judge for themselves whether their law causes more harm than good. Meanwhile, other states will be watching just as intently. That is as it should be.

In her ruling last week, the attorney general rightly noted that federal drug laws are intended to block drug trafficking, not to intimidate physicians who are asked to follow a state's legal process for prescribing lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients.

She also pointed out that those laws contain no evidence that Congress intended to give a federal agency the role of resolving such controversial ethical issues.

Wise words.

The debate on physician-assisted suicide continues in many states. Ironically, the lack of freedom for states to decide their own approaches to a difficult moral issue is exactly what many conservatives object to in the Supreme Court's abortion decisions.

Yet in this case, many of the same people who clamor for that freedom for states are working hardest to make sure that Oregon voters will not get their way. They should stop meddling in the democratic process and join the rest of the country in watching to see how the law plays out.

As for the drug police, they need to get back to the business of combating illegal drugs -- a fight they are woefully far from winning.

Sara Engram is a deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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