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Right to Die Case Before US Supreme Court

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a case involving the emotionally wrenching issue of doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.

At issue is a law in the western state of Oregon, the only state that allows terminally ill people to ask their doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs.

Since 1997 when Oregon's Death With Dignity Act took effect, 208 people have requested medical help to end their lives.

Charlene Andrews may add her name to that list one day. She is dying from cancer and says she values the option of choosing when to end her life.

"I know when all of my treatment options have been exhausted. Having the choice gives me comfort. It is just knowing that there is an option, knowing there is a choice," she said.

The case before the Supreme Court is likely to hinge on the more narrow legal question of whether the power to regulate physician-assisted suicide rests with the federal government or the individual states.

In 2001, then Attorney General John Ashcroft decided that the use of lethal drugs to help people in Oregon end their lives was a violation of federal drug laws. The Bush administration also argues that assisted suicide is incompatible with a doctor's role as a healer.

State officials in Oregon argue that the federal government has overstepped its authority.

Mary Williams was among those arguing on behalf of the state of Oregon before the Supreme Court.

"Nowhere did Congress say that they wanted to make that kind of transformation of power from the states regulating medical practice to the U.S. Attorney General regulating medical practice," said Ms. Williams.

The assisted suicide law first won public approval in Oregon in 1994 by a narrow 51 percent majority. Sixty percent of voters rejected an attempt to repeal the law three years later.

A number of right to life groups support the Bush administration's effort to stop doctor-assisted suicides in Oregon.

The issue often generates fierce debate on television and radio call-in programs.

"First and foremost, I do not think we have a constitutional right to murder ourselves. I have yet to find it anywhere in the Bill of Rights," said a listener.

Diane Coleman is with a group that opposes the Oregon law called Not Dead Yet. She says the states should be not in the business of encouraging sick people to end their lives.

"And instead of discouraging you and telling you how valuable your life is, we are going to agree with you and make sure you do not mess it up. We are going to give you the means to do it," she added. "That is a very dangerous message to people who have severe impairments, whether they are terminal or not."

Supporters of the Oregon law counter that it should be up to those who are terminally ill to decide when to ask for help to end their lives.

"A fraction of dying patients, even with excellent pain and symptom management, face a dying process that is so prolonged and marked by such extreme deterioration and suffering that for them having the choice for a peaceful and humane death on their own time, on their own terms, is the least worst alternative," added Kathryn Tucker, who is with a national group called Compassion and Choices.

In 1997, the Supreme Court found that terminally ill people do not have a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide. But the court also gave states the option to experiment with the issue.

The case is considered the first major issue to come before the high court under the leadership of new Chief Justice John Roberts, who replaced the late William Rehnquist.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in this latest assisted suicide case sometime in the next few months.