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High court decision a relief for some patients

/ Source: The Associated Press

Charlene Andrews, who has terminal breast cancer, has not yet asked a doctor for the fatal dose of barbiturates that would enable her to take her own life.

But the 68-year-old retired teacher said she's glad the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oregon's one-of-a-kind law that lets doctors prescribe lethal doses of drugs so terminally ill patients can commit suicide.

"I am just elated that this part is over, and I feel the U.S. Supreme Court did justice in recognizing the feelings and the needs of people who have terminal illness, to be able to use that process in a compassionate and dignified manner," Andrews said.

The high court ruling came as a relief to some seriously ill Oregon patients and caps years of challenges to the 1997 law. It also raises a host of questions, among them: Will Oregon remain alone among the states in allowing assisted suicide? Will more Oregonians take advantage of the law? Will there be another move in Congress to overturn the law?

A few states, such as Vermont and California, have proposals on the table, and supporters said the ruling Tuesday should build support.

"There's a lot of people out there who would love to have that law," said Andrews, who lives in Salem and got the news Tuesday as she was midway through her three-mile walk through a shopping mall.

George Eighmey, executive director of Compassion & Choices of Oregon, one of the main groups supporting the Oregon law, said he does not expect the number of assisted suicides in Oregon to increase markedly.

"The numbers have stayed relatively stable at about 35 a year," he said. The running total topped 200 in 2004 and is expected to reach about 240 when the state's 2005 report is published later this winter, he said.

Among them are some of the plaintiffs in the legal battle that ended Tuesday. Of the 16 plaintiffs, 12 have died, four by taking lethal doses of drugs.

The next battleground may be in the Congress, which might try again to tighten federal drug laws in a way that might pass muster with the Supreme Court. If so, the spotlight will be on Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who once before embarked on a filibuster in support of the state's law. He said Tuesday he would do so again if necessary.

Scott Rice of Portland, whose wife, Colleen, used the law in 2000 to end her life, said those debates are a burden on people at the end of their lives. He said that during one of the debates, his wife was going through the two-week waiting period under Oregon law.

"She became very aware that things could change," he said. "It was hard on her."

Under the law, terminally ill patients have to wait 15 days from the time they apply for the medications to the day they get them, to give them time to think over their decision.

For Andrews, a retired language arts teacher in Oregon's juvenile corrections system, the high court ruling means she is free to turn her attention to exercising more in her effort to stave off death. She walks and plays tennis. Her goal, she said, is to live to 70 — that is, until September 2007.

At some point, she said, she may decide to end it all. But "I'm not ready. I still have a lot of time left."