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10/17/97 Supreme Court opens door to assisted suicide in Oregon

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court has cleared the way for physician-assisted suicide to become law in Oregon, barring a reversal by the state’s voters in the November election.
The high court refused to hear a challenge to a 1994 Oregon voter initiative legalizing assisted suicide. The measure passed with a 51 percent majority but was never enforced because of the lawsuit.
Oregon voters are voting by mail-in ballot on a repeal of the 1994 initiative. Voters must vote on Proposition 51 by Nov. 4.
“The court has effectively loaded the gun and handed it to Oregon,” said Ben Mitchell, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “All eyes should be on Oregon. If Oregonians vote down (the proposition), Oregon will be the only location in the world where physicians may legally kill their patients.”
While euthanasia and assisted suicide are permitted in The Netherlands, they remain technically illegal, said Mitchell, also a consultant on biomedical and life issues for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
The Supreme Court’s Oct. 14 action was not a surprise. In June, the court unanimously upheld state laws in New York and Washington making it a crime for doctors to give lethal drugs to terminally ill patients who are mentally competent yet want to die. Federal appeals courts had struck down the laws, saying there was a constitutional right to assisted suicide.
The high court’s June opinions, however, did not rule out states legalizing assisted suicide. “Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the Washington opinion.
“The fight for life must be fought state by state, one by one,” Mitchell said. “We need to pray diligently for Oregonians. Only the hand of God will prevent medicalized murder from becoming law. And we each need to turn to our states to be certain that there are legal statutes against assisted death.”
What has happened in The Netherlands since doctors began practicing assisted suicide and euthanasia more than 20 years ago demonstrates the direction the debate will take in this country, Mitchell predicted.
“In The Netherlands, patients are being medically murdered,” he said. “Patients are being killed not only without their consent but, in some cases, against their clearly expressed wishes.”
In April, Congress passed a bill barring the use of federal funds for any physician-assisted suicide.
The Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution at its 1996 meeting condemning assisted suicide.