Issues That Divide: Assisted Death

Lojze Grozde
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It's been almost four years since Julie McMurchie's mother took her life.

"The way she died was in a very loving way," McMurchie said in a conversation with CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker.

She calls it a gift from the people of Oregon: The right for her mother Peggy Hass Sutherland to end her life with drugs from her doctor when the pain of terminal lung cancer became unbearable.

"When she reached for the medication, she said, 'I don't think anyone has realized how much pain I've been in.'" McMurchie said.

One hundred and seventy-one terminally ill patients like Peggy have chosen to end their lives since Oregon, five years ago, became the only state to legalize physician-suicide. The measure passed overwhelmingly by people across the political spectrum.

Some Oregonians, such as Miles Edwards, don't agree with the policy.

"I would not do that," Edwards said.

Edwards, who lives every day with the fear of dying from a return of pancreatic cancer, says physician-assisted suicide is morally and ethically wrong.

"I don't want to be at the an agent of making it happen before it's meant to happen," he said.

A CBS News/New York Times poll shows the American public is evenly divided over whether physician-assisted suicide should be allowed. Although 46 percent say it should be, 45 percent say it should not.

It might be tempting to reduce this to the familiar roles in America's ongoing morality play: People of deep religious faith versus secular humanists, but here in this state on the issue it is just not that simple.

People across the political spectrum voted overwhelmingly for the law, and determined opponents, like Dr. Kenneth Stevens, don't have religious objections. He calls it a violation of his Hippocratic Oath — murder not medicine.

"The role of medicine is to heal, to take care of patients, not to kill them," Stevens said. "The act of writing a [lethal] prescription is basically ordering a patient to die."

Opponents dwindling hopes of stopping the suicides soared when, as one of his last acts, Attorney General John Ashcroft asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the law, in order to put Oregon in sync with the other 49 states.

Victims' rights activist Barbara Coombs Lee says Ashcroft is trying to impose a red state mind-set on blue state Oregon.

"It's not someone else's values and beliefs that should define the last few days of a person's life, it should be their own," Coombs Lee said.

Pending a move by the Supreme Court, the debate continues, and Oregon remains the heart of it.

"When I die, I want it to be when it's my time to die," Edwards said.

"For her to be able to say goodbye, how lucky is that?" said Julie McMuchie, the woman whose mother used assisted suicide. "How could anyone begrudge her that?"