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Physician Assisted Suicide

The late physician Dr. Jack Kevorkian aroused much controversy by calling for laws that permit “physician assisted suicide.” Reputed to have helped up to 130 terminally ill or physically compromised people commit suicide, Kevorkian served eight years in prison for his actions, insisting to his final hours that all Americans had a civil right to ask a medical professional to help them die. Kevorkian, nicknamed “Doctor Death,” had a flair for publicity. His crusade for the right to an assisted death brought the subject to the forefront nationally. The subject is controversial, involving as it does questions of ethics, morality, religion, and the need for complicated procedural and legal safeguards.

In the U.S. state of Oregon, the state’s Death With Dignity Act allows a person who reasonably expects to live for less than six months to request a prescription for a lethal dose of medication from their physician, who may choose to refuse the request. Certain conditions, such as the presence of witnesses and proof of the sound mental capacity of the terminally ill person, apply. The law specifically protects health care providers from legal liability resulting from their giving the patient the drugs. Since the Act became law in 1994, several hundred patients have used its provisions to die by their own choice. In 2008 the neighboring northwestern state of Washington passed similar legislation. A 2009 ruling by the Montana Supreme Court effectively made physician assisted suicide legal in that state.

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