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Measure 16

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In passing the legislation known as Measure 16 in the state of Oregon, were there deceptions involved? Did the media play along with proponents of assisted suicide, denying media coverage to opposing viewpoints? What did proponents do immediately after passage of Measure 16? This paper will seek to satisfy these questions and others.

The "centerpiece" of the campaign to pass Measure 16 was a 60-second television ad featuring Patty A. Rosen (head of the Bend, OR chapter of the Hemlock Society and a former nurse practitioner). In it, Rosen urged the public to "Vote yes on 16" and gave an emotional personal testimonial to the illusion of slipping away peacefully after taking pills:

"I am a criminal. My 25-year-old daughter, Jody, was dying of bone cancer. The pain was so great that she couldn't bear to be touched, and drugs didn't help. Jody had a few weeks to live when she decided she wanted to end her life. But it wasn't legally possible. So I broke the law and got her the pills necessary. And as she slipped peacefully away, I climbed into her bed and I took her in my arms [Rosen's voice cracks with emotion] for the first time in months...." (1)

A statement signed by Rosen also appeared in the Oregon Voters' guide, distributed just prior to the vote on Measure 16: "She [Rosen's daughter] took the necessary medication herself and I was there when she fell asleep for the last time." (2) But it turned out that Rosen's account was different than an earlier version of this "true story" which was so effective in promoting a "pills only" measure to the voters. (3) Two years earlier, during the campaign for California's ballot initiative -- which allowed for both pills and a lethal injection -- Patty Rosen, then Patty Fallon, told a far different version of her daughter's death:

"So she went to sleep. I didn't know about plastic bags. I wish I had. Because...It seemed to be back firing. And I was fortunate enough at the very last to be able to hit a vein right.... [B]efore I could do that, the one son came into the room.... took his hands and held her veins for me.... I said, 'Oh God, she's startin' to breathe again.' And [the other son] said, 'I'll take a pillow.' " (4)

But, according to this version, the pillow wasn't used. The lethal injection worked. Ms. Rosen recounted another (similar, but aesthetically sanitized) version in a "Personal Declaration" filed as part of an amicus curiae brief in the recent cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. (5) Of course, Rosen could not publicly use the injection versions during the Oregon campaign since the lethal injection was not part of the measure. However, at a small meeting in October 1994, she did acknowledge that, once the measure was passed and in effect, proponents planned to challenge the prescription-only restriction. (6)

And yes, immediately after Measure16's passage (before the legal challenges that delayed its implementation began), the push to expand the pills-only provision to include the lethal injection began. In a letter to the New York Times, Hemlock's co-founder Derek Humphry wrote that the Oregon law "could be disastrous" since it didn't permit the lethal injection. Humphry pointed to a study in the Netherlands showing that pills alone often failed, making it necessary for the doctor to give a lethal injection "because the oral drugs were causing protracted suffering to the patient, the family and himself." (7) Humphry concluded, "The only two 100 percent ways of accelerated dying are the lethal injection of barbiturates and curare or donning a plastic bag [after taking pills]." (8)

It is that reality -- that pills don't work to bring about a peaceful death -- that had been hidden from Oregon voters in 1994. The media was not open to publicizing all aspects of the debate. Yet, as has been shown with Rosen, it is often the "peaceful pill" story that is told by assisted suicide advocates -- until they think the truth is no longer a hindrance to their agenda.

As with Rosen, Humphry has had personal experience in assisting suicides -- those of his first wife and both of his second wife's parents. In each case, he had claimed that pills were effective, but his second wife claims that Humphry actually smothered his first wife. (9) Further, it is known that his mother-in-law suffocated after a plastic bag was put over her head. (10) Similar revelations have come out in other cases that originally were reported as being peaceful deaths using pills. For example, George Delury, a New York man who had portrayed himself as a loving husband who "helped" his wife die by giving her pills, now admits that, after giving her a drug laced drink, he put two plastic bags over her head, secured them with a ribbon around her neck, and watched as her breathing slowly stopped. (11) Delury has commented on the Oregon law. He says he supports it, but that people need to be aware that "part of the process is having a plastic bag." (12)

With the revelations about the failed pill overdoses becoming the focus of Measure 16 repeal efforts, assisted suicide supporters are scrambling to explain away the brutal realities. Some, like Peter Goodwin, a Portland family practitioner and the leading medical spokesman for Measure 16, claims that "when physicians are prescribing knowledgeably, we won't need a plastic bag at all." (13) Others claim that the plastic bag cases illustrate the need for Measure 16 because, with it, doctors could tell people to wait longer for the pills to work. (14)

In an attempt to allay fears of the pill disasters, some supporters of Measure 16 have pointed to a 1996 article co-authored by Compassion in Dying medical consultant Thomas Preston, M.D., and Unitarian minister and former Compassion in Dying executive director Ralph Mero. Preston and Mero claim that, during Compassion in Dying's first 13 months of operation, all but one of the patient deaths by means of pills took place within 10 hours. (15)

But there are major questions about the credibility of the Preston-Mero article. In 1995, the two Compassion in Dying officials had claimed that no death by pills, which occurred within the group's first 13 months, had taken longer

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