America Votes: Oregon leads the way in battle over euthanasia

Americans go to the polling booths today. There are races for state and local offices but the votes on weighty social issues are probably more important in the long term. Mary Dejevsky looks at the question of euthanasia.
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The Independent Online
The eyes of many state governments will be on the north-western state of Oregon today when voters are asked, for the second time in three years, whether they want a law to permit "doctor-assisted suicide" - a highly regulated form of euthanasia.

Three years ago Oregon voted 51 per cent to 49 to allow doctors, in carefully defined circumstances, to help terminally ill patients die. It was the first state of the Union to introduce such a provision. Officially named the Death with Dignity Act, it permits someone with a terminal illness - defined as likely to result in death within six months - to solicit the help of a doctor to end his life.

There are numerous safeguards: the patient must be of sound mind, make his request in writing, consult two doctors, and wait 15 days. He may then receive a lethal drug dose, which he must administer himself, so the doctor bears no responsibility for causing death.

The law, however, has never been applied. It was challenged on constitutional grounds and judged to be of such importance that the case went to the Supreme Court for a ruling.

In June, in what was seen as a prelude to the Oregon judgment, the Supreme Court ruled in a separate case that there were no constitutional grounds for a federal ban on euthanasia, passing the decision back to the states. Last month, in its definitive verdict on the Oregon law, it dismissed an appeal by a lower court that would have rendered the law invalid. The Death with Dignity law had thus surmounted all legal hurdles and was allowed to stand.

But by then the Oregon state legislature had decided to submit the law to a second referendum, which takes place today. This time, voters are to be asked not whether they want a Death with Dignity law, but whether they want to repeal it.

The result is seen as doubly telling. Not only will it show the state of opinion in Oregon on a controversial issue, it will also show whether opinion has shifted over the past three years, and what effect, if any, the previous referendum result may have had on public opinion.

One view is that voters were so scared by the implications of the law they had so narrowly approved that they would vote decisively to repeal it at the first opportunity. Others say voters so resented having their original decision called into question that the majority this time will be much greater. One survey, for local news agencies, indicated that the vote would be almost two to one to keep the law.

As polling day neared, the gap was thought to have narrowed as groups hostile to the law mobilised resources in a hard-hitting advertising campaign. With $2m (pounds 1.25m) at their disposal, compared to $400,000 commanded by supporters of the law, anti-euthanasia groups are exposing what they see as the unacceptable risks and immorality of doctor-assisted suicide. More than half their funds have been raised by the Catholic Church.

One advert in the opposition's armoury shows a terminally ill teenager in a fit of depression dying a tortured death from the drugs prescribed to end his life - something the law's supporters say would be impossible under the law as framed.

Outside Oregon, there are now 20 states considering "right- to-die" legislation of their own, adding substance to the view of those who forecast that euthanasia could be to the next century what abortion was to this.