November/December, 1997 Volume XII Number 9

Oregon's Death on demand

In 1994 Washington State voters rejected Measure 19, a Hemlock Society initiative that would have put doctors in the business of killing their patients.
Hemlock Society petitioners had done as much as anyone to defeat their own initiative. Across the state line in neighboring Oregon talk revolved around what many viewed as an offensive tactic used by the Measure 19 campaign. Residents in Washington, at least those over 60, had received mailings which suggested that they were the ones most likely to use the law if # 19 made it through the election.
It was a major error. While the Hemlock Society itself has attracted a following of death-on-demand activists coming into their retirement years, their own constituency does not represent the general population. Studies done both before and after the election indicate that it is predominantly the young and healthy who seek a "right" to "assisted suicide."
The postcard mailing campaign offended voters who might otherwise have stayed away from the polls. Washington State's older population sent Hemlock packing in defeat. And Oregon became the state next targeted in the battle to expand physician-killing.
Oregon was a likely choice. It is a state which welcomed one form of medically sanctioned killing in 1969. A legal abortion could be had in Oregon four years before the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that all states accept abortion on demand.
In 1994 the Oregon initiative to create a new role for the family doctor was titled Measure 16. Though the initiative failed to define clearly how it was that physicians could go about killing their patients, in November of that year voters passed 16 into law by a narrow 51% to 49% margin. Immediately a battle was pitched in the courts to restrain the enactment of Oregon's new "Physician Assisted Suicide" law.
A court challenge to the new law took on teeth when U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan ruled the law unconstitutional and issued an injunction against its enactment. Activists who had pursued legalizing physician assisted death were furious and appealed to the notoriously liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In February the court answered as expected and rejected the lower court injunction against Measure 16 becoming law. But for a last challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court, physician assisted killing was set to begin at a new level--moving beyond the unborn--in Oregon.
The Oregon legislature meanwhile made preparations to challenge the so-called "death with dignity" act in another way. In May of 1997 both the House of Representatives and the Oregon Senate voted to refer the law back to voters for reconsideration. The move would give Oregonians another opportunity to look at what opponents refer to as a "fatally flawed" law.
The referendum back to voters has proved to be wise in more ways than one. A number of opponents appeal to a moral concern over suicide of any sort. God, the argument asserts, is the only one with a right to intentionally end another's life, with the exceptions of what has been called "just war," "self defense," and "capital punishment," irregularities appointed by God himself.
Murder is proscribed in the Law of God, whether self murder or the kind proposed by euthanasia activists in Oregon. Referring to 1 Samuel 31:4, even the king of Israel could not assert a right to end his own life. And following the biblical pattern, another who might assist in such a request, even if ordered by the king, could lose his life, as was the case in 2 Samuel 1:5-15.
Upon closer inspection, from a pragmatic perspective, it became clear that Measure 16 was flawed in other ways. It gave a license to kill, but without specifying how.
Proponents of the law responded by insisting that the law was intended to allow doctors only the right to prescribe a lethal oral dose of drugs.
Voters who opted for the law had no way of knowing about a mountain of research from the Netherlands. Statistics demonstrated that many of those who had died under similar circumstances in the tiny country on the other side of the globe had done so only after choking to death on their own vomit, and in 25% of the cases after lingering for hours, even days, before actually dying.
The referendum back to voters has been titled Measure 51. Throughout the latter part of October and up until November 3, voters in the state of Oregon are making the most significant decision in the country. Seemingly, if the Bill of Rights claim to life as an inalienable right is to be upheld the responsibility will lie with individual voters. The U.S. Supremes have already indicated a willingness to see it thrown away.

Copyright © 1997 AFLM