As recently as 15 years ago, doctors were prosecuted for withdrawing life-support systems from dying patients, even at the behest of a family. Now in Oregon, after a surprisingly strong vote that takes one state to the frontier of medical ethics, doctors can begin helping terminally ill patients kill themselves.
The vote Tuesday reflects how far and how fast public opinion, at least in this state, has moved on an issue once considered taboo.
There was little ambiguity to the vote. About 60 percent of this state's voters rebuffed an attempt to repeal the nation's first assisted-suicide law. The law, which was passed in 1994 by 51 percent to 49 percent, had been held up by court challenges.
The law allows doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to a terminally ill patient who has made a written request to die. Opponents promise fresh legal fights, though the U.S. Supreme Court has held that states have a legitimate right to pursue such laws.
"This is a turning point for the death-with-dignity movement," said Barbara Combs Lee, one of the leaders in Oregon's assisted-suicide campaign. "Not because we won. But because we proved the citizens of the state can band together and overcome the political machinery of those who oppose choice."
At least one other state, Michigan, is in the early stages of a campaign to pass a similar measure. But supporters do not expect the Oregon vote to start a trend.
Rather, the significance is that something considered sinful by many religions, and ethically abhorrent to medical professional groups, is now legal in one state.
The Roman Catholic Church, which spent nearly $2-million trying to repeal the Oregon law, has tried particularly hard to make the point that any taking of a life is morally wrong. Wednesday, church officials condemned Oregon's decision.
"The vote is a tragedy for all Americans," said Cardinal Bernard Law of the United States Catholic Conference. "Most of all it is a tragedy for seriously ill patients, who deserve better care for their needs, not an invitation to suicide."
Doctors would not give lethal injections under Oregon's law. Rather, after two doctors have concluded that a patient of sound mind who has made a written request to die has less than six months to live, a prescription for a lethal dose of drugs could be written. Under the act, there is a 15-day waiting period after the initial request. Most likely, the dosage would be self-administered.
Oregon has drawn up some early standards on monitoring the law, the dosages and the type of drugs that can be used.
Doctors in the state are split on how to proceed. Although the official professional organizations, like the American Medical Association and its Oregon chapter, have voted not to back the Oregon law, many individual doctors have come out in support of it.