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Oregon's Suicide Law Argued Before Supreme Court

Justices Hear Challenge to Physician-Assisted Suicide Law

Who Are the Typical Patients?

According to state statistics, the average patient requesting assisted suicide is a 69-year-old cancer patient, though people as young as 25 have used the law to end their own lives.

Still, close to half of the prescriptions written under the law are never used, the state says. Instead, the orders are used as "an insurance policy" against debilitating pain by many patients facing predictable decline and death, says Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion and Choices, a group that lobbied for Oregon's law.

According to Lee, terminally ill patients often face months of relatively normal living followed by a steep drop in mental and bodily functioning about two weeks before natural death.

"They are waiting to see if that decline includes unbearable suffering. If it doesn't, the medication goes unused. If it does, they have the medications in possession and they can use them," Coombs Lee says.

That does little to assuage opponents, who see assisted suicide as devaluing life and a potentially dangerous shortcut to providing the best end-of-life care possible.

In a report last week, the President's Council on Bioethics strongly condemned assisted suicide, along with euthanasia, and warned that the practices could become more commonplace as the nation's elderly population doubles in the next 50 years.

"This is going to be an increasing temptation, we have to guard against it," Leon Kass, MD, the council's chairman, told reporters.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that dying patients have no constitutional right to assisted suicide. That decision cleared states to pass their own laws, as Oregon voters soon did. An April Harris Interactive poll this year concluded that two-thirds of U.S. adults now support Oregon's effort.

If the Bush administration wins the case, the federal government will gain the authority to use the Controlled Substances Act to prosecute doctors who prescribe drugs for assisted suicide. Such a ruling would not bar other states from passing assisted suicide laws of their own, however.

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