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Vote on 'death with dignity' agitates Oregon

(First Edition) THE HOTLY-disputed question of whether doctors should be allowed by law to give lethal drugs to terminally-ill people who wish to kill themselves has reared up again in the United States, this time in Oregon, where the Hemlock Society has its headquarters. Voters therein the north-western state will next month decide by public ballot whether patients with less than six months to live should be able to acquire prescriptions for deadly drugs.

Failed attempts to introduce 'right to die' laws through the ballot box in Washington State, in 1991, and in California, in 1992, produced intense and acrimonious debate; so Oregon is proving no exception. The medical community is deeply divided, over the issue, and the Catholic Church has been spearheading efforts to raising funds to oppose the proposals, known locally as Measure 16, or the Oregon Death With Dignity Act.

Proponents believe the measure would spare unnecessary pain and expense to the terminally-ill and their relatives. The laws would allow a fatally ill patient to obtain a prescription for a lethal dose of barbiturates, as long as two doctors agreed the patient had less than six months to live.

The physicians would have to be satisfied that the patient had rejected all other treatment alternatives and the dying patient would have to request the deadly prescription three times - with the final request in writing - and administer it of his own accord, unaided by anyone else. Supporters include the state's Democratic Party, and state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organisation for Women. The Hemlock Society, in Eugene, Oregon, is keeping a low profile.

Opponents say the legislation is deeply flawed, and risks encouraging elderly people to opt for early death, merely because they do not want to be an emotional and financial drain on others.

They also point to the lack of any requirements for the patient to have a mental health examination - an omission which they say means there's a risk that ill people will chose to kill themselves simply because they are suffering from depression. And, they claim, doctors cannot say for certain if a patient will die within six months; an estimated 10 per cent could kill themselves prematurely, they say.

The issue will be determined on 8 November, on the same day as America's mid-term elections. A poll this month showed that 60 per cent of likely voters among Oregon's 2.8 million residents favoured the law, while 37 per cent opposed it. But, although this suggested a comfortable victory for the 'death with dignity' lobby, past experience will tell them that the opposition tends to gather steam as the election day approaches.