More MS news articles for Dec 2001

Oregon debates assisted suicide law

December 22, 2001 12:54 p.m. EST
By CHRISTY KARRAS, Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. - Before going to bed, Colleen Rice put her ever-present oxygen tank aside and played cards with her grandchildren. The next morning her husband, two adult children and friends gathered around her. She kissed them and told them she loved them, then drank a glass of lethal drugs dissolved in water.

Within minutes, the 67-year-old cancer patient stopped breathing, quietly becoming one of more than 90 Oregon residents to use the state's Death with Dignity law since voters approved it in 1997.

A year after Rice's death, the assisted-suicide law has become the center of a battle of wills between Oregon, the only state that lets physicians help to hasten the deaths of terminally ill patients, and the Bush administration, which opposes the practice.

Last month, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the federal government would suspend or revoke the licenses of doctors who prescribe federally controlled drugs to patients who want to use them to die. A federal judge has temporarily blocked implementation of Ashcroft's decision.

The law requires that before a lethal dose of drugs is supplied to a terminally ill patient, two doctors must agree that the patient has less than six months to live, has voluntarily chosen to die and is capable of making health care decisions.

Rice's husband, Scott, and daughter Catherine Paul say they have become vocal advocates because that's what she would have wanted.

"If her ghost could show up, she'd be carrying a sign up on the hill in Washington saying 'How dare you?'" Paul said. "My mother was a fighter. She'd be fighting for it."

Critics say the law runs counter to medical ethics.

"Federally controlled substances should not be used to kill people," said Dr. William Petty of Physicians for Compassionate Care, a group of doctors and others who oppose the law. He believes physicians and patients should focus on end-of-life care and pain management.

Others say the assisted-suicide law could lead to terminally ill people hastening their deaths to spare relatives the cost of months of expensive medical care.

But the state insists that terminally ill patients have the right to decide the circumstances and time of their own deaths.

And so do Oregon's voters; the law has been approved by a majority - twice.

Behind all the legal wrangling and ideological posturing, Colleen Rice's relatives say they don't want the human story to be forgotten.

They didn't want to lose her any earlier than they had to, but they accepted her choice to die on her own terms.

"Nobody forced anyone to do anything. It was her decision," said Paul, who supported her mother's choice but had to force herself to stay in the room when she died.

Colleen Rice initially thought she had worsening asthma, but a CAT scan revealed she had advanced lung cancer. The tumor was inoperable and was leaking fluid into the lung, making breathing nearly impossible. Rice loved to laugh, but doing that caused pain not even morphine could dull.

About a month after the diagnosis, a specialist told Scott and Colleen Rice: "If you have anything to finish, do it now."

There were many projects to complete. Colleen Rice had been an active woman - a writer, an actress, a businesswoman.

The family raced to edit a historical book she'd been writing, "In the Midst of Darkness." The first copies rolled off the press two weeks after she died. She had signed labels for people who might want an autographed copy.

"She became very focused," Scott Rice said. "She thought, I have some strength and I know there are things I need to do."

That included making use of the assisted-suicide law.

"Years ago, before any of this happened, she would say, 'I don't want to suffer,'" Scott Rice said. "She had a fear of drowning. ... You know, with lung cancer, it's going to be something very close to that."

At one point, she learned the U.S. Senate was debating a measure that, like Ashcroft's order, would have made it illegal for doctors to prescribe medicines to help people die.

"It terrified her," Scott Rice said.

She chose the day, Dec. 13 - after her grandson came home from the Navy, but before Christmas. She didn't want to die on Christmas.

Relatives did their best to be cheerful.

"I was thinking how hard it was for us, trying to look happy, playing cards with the kids. As hard as it was for us, I can't imagine how hard it was for her. She knew she'd never see them again," Paul said. "She never cried once. It came together the way she wanted it to."

Copyright © 2001 AP Online