Answer: Depends on who’s speaking.
Plaintiffs in a state court lawsuit seeking clarification of the 1963 Assisted Suicide Statute contend it does not affect physicians who prescribe medications that their terminally ill, mentally competent patients may use to end their suffering at a time they deem appropriate.
The assistant attorney general defending the statute agreed that the oncologists and cancer patient who filed the suit made a compelling case at trial for aid in dying.
“The question isn’t whether it’s the right thing but whether it’s legal and whether it’s constitutional,” Assistant Attorney General Scott Fuqua argued Thursday in closing. “The distinctions are medical, psychiatric, psychological and maybe bioethical. They are not legal distinctions.”
The decision is now in the hands of 2nd District Judge Nan Nash, who said she expects to issue a ruling in no more than 30 days.
Physicians in Oregon have written about 1,050 prescriptions for fatal barbiturates under the state’s Death with Dignity Act, which was approved by voters in 1994 and implemented in 1998, said Dr. Nicholas Gideonse, a family practice physician at Oregon Health and Science University.
About 700 patients have used those prescriptions, he said. “This is not suicide,” Gideonse said. “We’re providing real relief from suffering in the face of a terminal illness.”
The underlying medical conditions for which most prescriptions have been written under the Oregon law are cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, and HIV/AIDS.
Kathryn Tucker, an attorney with Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group for end-of-life issues, told Nash on Thursday that when the statute was enacted a half-century ago, aid in dying was unknown because “we didn’t have medical care that draws the process out.”
“This case is about whether (plaintiff and patient) Aja Riggs will have comfort if her pain becomes unbearable and she can choose to end it. She doesn’t know if she’ll take that choice, but she wants options,” Tucker said.
New Mexico’s public policy has strongly supported the empowerment of patients, she said, noting it was the first state in the nation to enact the Uniform Health Care Decisions Act.
Although Tucker said close scrutiny of the statute would allow the court to find physicians cannot be prosecuted for aid in dying, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Laura Schauer Ives argued that the court could also find the statute unconstitutionally vague.
Fuqua, the assistant attorney general, insisted that plaintiffs in the lawsuit had conflated a medical standard with a legal standard.
Since the statute makes it a fourth-degree felony to aid in the taking of a person’s life, he said, “it’s hard to see how it doesn’t apply to aid in dying. The sole purpose of the prescription is to hasten death. The means is irrelevant.”
Journal Staff Writer Olivier Uyttebrouck contributed to this report.