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Should Doctor-Assisted Suicide for Terminally Ill Patients be Legal?

The US Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday challenging a controversial law in the Western state of Oregon that legalizes doctor-assisted suicides.

Led by a new Chief Justice, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a question that could affect many Americans: Whether a state law that allows doctors to use lethal drugs to kill terminally ill patients who ask for them, violates federal drug laws.

The Bush administration opposes doctor-assisted suicide. It's attacking Oregon's "Death with Dignity" act by arguing that hastening death is an improper use of medication. But supporters of the Oregon law say the federal government has no business interfering with how or when a patient chooses to die.

Dr. Paul Spiers, is with an organization called "End of Life Choices" says, "We may not all have an abortion, we may not all care to vote, but we are all going to die. So the question is whether or not we are going to have some control or choice in how we're going to do it."

Oregon passed the "Death with Dignity Act" in 1994 and it remains the only state that allows assisted suicide. Since 1997, 208 patients have sought assistance to end their lives. But the Bush administration and others argue that medicine should be used to prolong life not end it.

Jim Bopp, an attorney for the National Right to Life committee says doctors should play no role in assisted suicides. "It is not medical treatment, it is the absence of medical treatment. It is doing harm to your patient."

Many are paying close attention to the court's deliberations, including Greg Yaden who has been battling leukemia for years. He says he already has the lethal dose of barbiturates he needs to hasten his death if he chooses to do so.

Charlene Andrews continues to travel despite enduring the final stages of breast cancer. Both say the best treatment for terminally ill patients is the one that gives them control of their final moments. "You know when death is upon you. I want to be able to die with some dignity and with some compassion surrounding me."

Others argue that legalized suicide is a dangerous policy that could allow doctors to determine who lives and who dies.

Diane Coleman with the group of disabled activists called "Not Dead Yet" says, unless the Oregon law is struck down, other states could end up adopting similar policies that would endanger the lives of many disabled people who have significant and expensive healthcare needs. "It could signal a change on a broader scale and that's really the basis of concern that it could lead if you will to a perfect storm."

Legal analysts say the outcome of the challenge will depend on whether the court believes that states should continue regulating doctors and the medical community or if the federal government can exercise its authority over controlled substances to stop assisted suicide.