cited by both sides as
By Nancy Vogel
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 24, 2005
In six minutes, the once-rugged logger fell asleep. His wife, Lynda, watched his chest rise and fall and waited for him to die.
Prueitt expected to become one of more than 200 critically ill Oregonians who have taken the end of life into their own hands under the state's assisted suicide law, which took effect in 1998.
But Prueitt didn't die. He slept for three days. Then he woke up.
"What happened?" he asked his wife, who still supports the
Later, Lynda Prueitt says, he told her that he had been in the presence of God while unconscious. "God told him, 'This is not the way to get into heaven,' " she said.
Prueitt, the only person to have survived a full dose of the barbiturates prescribed under the law, succumbed to his cancer two weeks later, but his story has lived on, fueling debate over not just the
Californians have just begun the debate over whether government should sanction physician-assisted suicide, but
There, the worst-case scenarios cited by opponents that people would move to
But the law has continued to raise thorny issues, such as those in Prueitt's case, which is being investigated by the state Board of Pharmacy.
Between 16 and 42 people have ended their lives each year through legally sanctioned suicide since the law's passage, according to annual reports by the Oregon Department of Human Services. Eight to 26 others each year have gotten the prescriptions but not used them.
Those who have opted to end their lives with physician assistance are almost evenly split between men and women, with a median age of 69. They are as likely to be Republicans as Democrats. Most have cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease or chronic respiratory illness. They tend to be better educated and are more likely to be divorced or never married than other Oregonians dying of the same diseases. Residents of the more rural eastern part of
Doctors of those who request help hastening their deaths say that the most frequently mentioned end-of-life concerns are a decreasing ability to do the things that make life enjoyable, loss of autonomy and loss of dignity.
One issue raised by opponents when the
Prueitt's case was the most exceptional. Still, his story has become a rallying cry for opponents of physician-assisted suicide.
Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy (R-Monrovia), who opposes the
And Physicians for Compassionate Care, a group of doctors and other health professionals opposed to assisted suicide, issued a press release saying that Prueitt "proved the reality that dying by overdose is not easy, comfortable and certainly not dignified."
Lynda Prueitt, who reluctantly agreed to help her husband get the lethal prescription, tells his story because he asked her to do so in order to warn others.
But speaking her own mind, she reflects the majority of Oregonians, who defend the assisted suicide law.
"That option should be there," Prueitt said. "Leave it up to the people. Whatever happens between them and God, that is between them and God."
The law enjoys such widespread support in
Even the most ardent opponents acknowledge that their best chance of overturning the law comes not from
Federal courts have so far ruled against the Bush administration and upheld
The Oregon Legislature, divided over the law, put its repeal on the November 1997 ballot. More debate only led to greater support.
Experts can't say exactly why
"There is this crusty sense of independence that's part of the ethos here," said Linda Ganzini, a professor of psychiatry and medicine at
The original campaign to pass the law was heated, with the opposition financed heavily by the Catholic Church. Television and radio ads warned that if the law passed, people would die in large numbers of horrible deaths or that doctors and pharmacists would refuse to participate.
Former Gov. Barbara Roberts, who supported the law, called the ads in 1997 less "ugly" than those of 1994.
"Death came out of the closet," she said. "People were used to talking about it and there was a comfort level people had in '97 that was not there in '94."
Kenneth R. Stevens Jr. is one of the law's most outspoken critics. A 65-year-old
The law violates the role of physicians and undermines the relationship between doctors and patients, he argues. It opens the door to euthanasia and shifts a harmful emotional burden to doctors. With
Noting that many of the people who choose suicide have been described by their doctors as strong-willed and fearful of losing autonomy, Stevens calls it death with vanity, not dignity.
"These are prideful, controlling people," Stevens said.
His apprehension about assisted suicide extends to 1982 when his wife, the mother of six children, was dying of malignant lymphoma that had spread to her brain, spinal cord and bones. They visited her doctor, and it was clear nothing more could be done.
"As we were about to leave, he said, 'Well, I could write a prescription for an extra large amount of pain medicine,' " Stevens said. "It was very subtly said, and we understood the intended message. As I helped my wife to the car, she said, 'Ken, he wants me to kill myself.' It just devastated her."
His wife died six days later without the prescription.
"I've come to the conclusion when a doctor does this," he said, "it's doctor-ordered death."
Stevens is not just philosophically opposed to the
Stevens also worries that the people who are present at assisted suicides tend to be supporters, with a built-in motive not to report problems. He notes that in more than 70% of assisted suicide deaths, a volunteer from the nonprofit organization Compassion in Dying is present. The prescribing doctor is present in only 30% of the cases.
"We're supposed to trust them to tell us there are complications?" Stevens said. "There's no oversight for it."
Nick Gideonse, a family doctor who directs a southeastern
Gideonse considers it a privilege. He has written the lethal prescription six times. He has watched three patients take the drugs and die.
"I've heard some of the opponents say that physicians are taking on God or that it's somehow intoxication of power to provide this," said Gideonse, 44. "No, it's a role of tremendous service. The relief from the patients and family is palpable."
"You can go through a lot of medical care with illusions of curative options or opting not to discuss the elephant in the room," Gideonse said. "In the process of doing this, you discuss the closest family relationships, the depth of feeling and history between parents and children. You discuss core issues of the value of life. You discuss core issues of the fear of and awfulness of not just death, but these terrible diseases."
Without a safe, legal way to discuss hastening death, Gideonse said, patients and doctors struggle in awkward, oblique conversations. Patients may end up hoarding pills for a much less certain suicide, starve themselves or kill themselves by a violent method.
When he was a medical resident in
The friend told him that at times his treatment was so miserable that if that was all he faced for the rest of his life, "at least knowing he had the option of final control would be tremendously important," Gideonse said.
Pat Greene, a 48-year-old landscape designer in
Doctors told her then that the cancerous tumors wrapped around her bronchial tubes meant she had only 18 months to live. Last year, they found cancer in her liver and lymph nodes. A few months ago, they spotted three tumors in her brain.
Greene is witty and lively, with a
She now has a diagnosis of six months or less to live, the first of several requirements for getting a lethal prescription. But recently, as she endured her fourth round of chemotherapy, the news was filled with the pope's death and debate over whether Terri Schiavo, who had slipped into a persistent vegetative state 15 years ago, should be kept alive artificially. As she watched television in the middle of the night, Greene said, she decided to get a lethal prescription, even though she still hopes not to need it.
"Nobody can take it away from me," she said. "It's my right and my responsibility. Otherwise somebody else has to sit around and think about whether to pull the plug." On April 20, Greene paid $1,150 for what she calls her "pass": Four squat bottles of clear liquid Nebutol. She didn't pick them up at the local pharmacy, where they know her well.
"It would break their heart," said Greene, "and I don't want to break their heart."
The pharmacist asked her whether she would like cherry flavor. She declined when she learned the flavoring would make the drugs expire more quickly.
"I said, nope, give me the one with the longest shelf life," said Greene, "and I'll renew it in 2007."
Meanwhile, she plans to visit family in the South this summer and tour
"I still have a great quality of life," Greene said. "And I actually anticipate having a great quality of life until I die. I base that on how much I can give back and how much love there is in my life."
But the cancer, which she calls "just a bad one," could get into her spine and create paralysis. She does not want to die in a coma as her father did in 1994, back in her Appalachian hometown of Wise,
"I have been told by some of my spiritual guides," said Greene, "that I'll know when it's time . And I don't know yet. And I'm not at all ready to let go."
The decision to get the prescription, she said, "was easy for me to make."
"I can't imagine anyone else not wanting that decision for themselves."