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A quantum leap for the right to die.

It was 9:00 PM on the evening of November 8--election day, 1994. Since early afternoon, newscasters and conservative pundits had been pronouncing the nationwide election results the most sweeping mandate for the Republican platform in over 100 years. This was an overstatement. Unfortunately, however, it wasn't without some factual basis.

In short, it had been a very bad day. And the evening wasn't shaping up much better--with one striking exception. Early returns put the "yes" votes on the Oregon Death with Dignity Act four percentage points ahead of the "no" votes. Did we dare to seriously contemplate victory before the absentee votes were tabulated?

Our fellow death-with-dignity activists at the Oregon campaign head-quarters, along with the national office of the Hemlock Society, decided it would be premature to claim victory. The volume of absentee ballots could still tip the scales against us. Later in the evening, CNN declined to predict the outcome.

Many right-to-die activists spent a very restless night, rose at 5:00 AM or 6:00 AM the next day, and stumbled bleary-eyed to the nearest radio or television. Still no final figures. Noon came and went. And we waited. Slowly, the interminable afternoon ticked by. And still we waited.

In the early evening, Oregon officials predicted victory for the act, and CNN declared it. The percentage spread stood at 52 percent for and 48 percent against. Reluctant to meet the press and claim victory, backers of the act still refrained from comment. Finally that evening, it was self-evident. The people of the state of Oregon had legalized physician aid-in-dying for the first time anywhere in the world.

Measure 16--the Oregon Death with Dignity Act--went into effect on December 8, 1994. It enables Oregon physicians to write prescriptions for lethal doses of medication for use by qualified terminally ill adults who meet the act's specific requirements.

The past defeat of the Washington state aid-in-dying initiative and the subsequent failure of a similar measure in California were largely due to blatant misrepresentations and scare tactics funded by the coffers of the Roman Catholic church. While Oregon's Measure 16 faced the same tactics, our experiences during these previous campaigns taught us a great deal. The knowledge we had gained was carefully studied and applied during the Oregon campaign and was a major factor in this first-ever victory.

Of course, the fight for human rights never stays won. "Now that Measure 16 is the law in Oregon," chief petitioner Barbara Coombs Lee told me, "we must turn our attention to two immediate priorities: political activity to counter any attempts to repeal it or nullify its effects; and preparations for intervening in any legal challenges undertaken by the Catholic church."

By no means was this turning point in the struggle for the right to die accomplished only because of lessons learned in previous initiative efforts. This victory was made possible through many years of public education, tirelessly undertaken by a myriad of death-with-dignity advocates, groups, writers, journalists, and others.

The cumulative result of this work is a gradual but profound change in the public consciousness regarding the unnecessary suffering of the dying. Scores of Americans have come to realize that self-determination in dying is the ultimate human right, the final civil liberty, and that no one should be forced to endure a prolonged death marked by physical pain and emotional anguish. They have learned that enabling the terminally ill to make their own choices, according to their personal beliefs and convictions, is an act of love.

Other critical steps toward reform include the heroic activism of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, his acquittal of murder charges, and his campaign to add a right-to-die amendment to the Michigan State Constitution that would legalize physician aid-in-dying. Although this initiative effort failed, its educational value was incalculable.

In addition, a legal challenge brought by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to Michigan's law prohibiting assisted suicide has resulted in a ruling striking down the section of the law created by the legislature specifically to stop Dr. Kevorkian's activities. The judge in this case stated that "there is a constitutionally protected right to commit suicide" when the quality of life is severely impaired by a medical condition.

In other significant litigation, Compassion in Dying, founded in Washington state in 1993, has won the first round in its challenge--initiated on behalf of several patients and four physicians--to Washington's state law prohibiting "aiding and abetting" a suicide. On May 3, 1994, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein declared the statute unconstitutional, stating in part:

The liberty interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment is the freedom to make choices according to one's individual conscience about those matters which are essential to personal autonomy and basic human dignity. There is no more profoundly personal decision, nor one which is closer to the heart of personal liberty, than the choice which a terminally ill person makes to end his or her suffering and hasten an inevitable death.

The state has appealed this decision to the Ninth District Court of Appeals, and a hearing was scheduled for early December. The ACLU of Washington filed an amicus curiae brief in support of this challenge, which has been joined by numerous groups including Humanists of Washington, the American Humanist Association, various AIDS foundations and support groups, and the Northwest Women's Law Center, among many others. And, most recently, the Washington ACLU has proposed state legislation that would allow qualified terminally ill patients to obtain lethal prescriptions from physicians under conditions similar to those established by Oregon's Death with Dignity Act.

A brief similar to the one described above was filed this past July challenging comparable laws in the state of New York.

The courage and commitment of Dr. Timothy Quill must also be recognized, along with that of many other writers, journalists, doctors, hospice and other health-care professionals, dying patients, and their families.

The work of the Right to Die Society of Canada has also provided vital impetus to the movement. Although its 1992--1993 legal challenge on behalf of Sue Rodriguez to the Canadian law prohibiting assisted suicide resulted in an adverse ruling by the Canadian Supreme Court, Rodriguez nevertheless did die with the assistance of an anonymous doctor and in the presence of a member of Parliament, Svend Robinson. Since then, a Senate Special Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide has been created, the minister of justice has pledged to introduce new right-to-die legislation, and Prime Minister Chretien has vowed to put the issue to a free vote.

As an activist and a student of the history of progressive social change, I have come to believe that at some point, after years of pounding away at the forces of resistance to change, a quantum leap sometimes occurs. I believe that the events discussed here constitute just such a historical leap in the right-to-die arena. Indeed, a recent Harris poll confirms that over 73 percent of Americans now believe that physicians should be able to help terminally ill patients end their lives. The groundbreaking passage of Oregon's physician aid-in-dying law is the first of many legal and legislative victories to come.

Well over a year ago in this column, in urging humanists to become active in this profoundly humanistic cause, I asked: "So long as our fellow human beings are dying protracted and agonizing deaths, often alone, denied the most basic control over their own lives, how can we [humanists] not be actively engaged in doing something to help them? Should citizens be forced by the state to behave in cruel and inhumane ways toward one another?" Humanists and freethinkers responded in no uncertain terms.

But the work is far from finished. The continued involvement of the free-thought community is necessary to ensure that never again will any terminally ill person be denied the basic human right of self-determination in dying. Victory will truly be ours when no one must die alone and when no one need fear criminal prosecution by the state for an act of supreme compassion and love.
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Title Annotation:passage of Oregon Death with Dignity Act
Author:Dority, Barbara
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Words:1340
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