A Legal Assisted Suicide

A grandmother stricken with cancer has died using nation's only assisted-suicide law, an advocacy group said Wednesday.

The woman in her mid 80s, whose name was withheld by her family, died Tuesday night, about 30 minutes after taking a lethal dose of barbiturates mixed with syrup, and washed down with a glass of brandy, the advocates said.

"I'm looking forward to it," the woman said in a tape played for reporters by the group Compassion in Dying. "I will be relieved of all the stress I have."

The woman, who was diagnosed with breast cancer 20 years ago, had been having an increasingly difficult time breathing and recently was told by her doctor she had less than two months to live, the advocates said.

The woman's own doctor refused to assist her in committing suicide, so the woman turned to the advocacy group to find a doctor who would.

Surrounded by family members and her physician, she fell into a deep sleep five minutes after taking the concoction. "She swallowed the medication and died a half hour later, very peacefully," said Barbara Coombs Lee, author of the law.

The advocacy group believed the Oregon woman to be the first known person to die under the law, but The Oregonian newspaper reported today that another cancer patient had used the law to die earlier.

Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, first passed by voters in 1994 and affirmed last year, allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs at the request of terminally ill patients who have less than six months to live. Doctors may only prescribe a lethal dose, not administer it.

State officials, citing privacy laws, would not confirm whether there has been a previous case. They say they will release a preliminary report as soon as they have recorded 10 suicides.

In the campaign last fall over the measure, opponents suggested that the state would become a magnet for people who wanted medical assistance to die.

Though that groundswell has not materialized, opponents were still dismayed at news of the first state-sanctioned suicide.

"This is a tragic and sad day for Oregon and the United States," said Bob Castagna, a spokesman for the Oregon Catholic Conference. "Assisted suicide has begun in the state of Oregon to our profound regret and sorrow. May God have mercy on all of us."

The law has been the focus of national debate since the first campaign in 1994 when voters passed it by a narrow margin, and in 1997 when it was put back on the ballot by the Legislature and overwhelmingly passed again.

Written by Brad Cain
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