By SAM HOWE VERHOVEK, New York Times
PORTLAND, Ore., Nov. 7.
Richard L. Holmes does not want to die.
“Hey, I’m into Medicare a third of a million dollars trying to stay alive,” said Mr. Holmes, a 72-year- old retired salesman of burglar alarms who, despite a colon operation and a liver transplant in recent years, finds himself facing what his doctors say is terminal cancer. “I’ve enjoyed life. I’d love to stay alive.”
But that is not going to happen. So, knowing that his days are numbered, Mr. Holmes decided last month to apply for state permission to obtain lethal medication under the law that makes Oregon the only state in the nation to allow physician-assisted suicide.
Today, just three days before he would have been entitled to obtain the barbiturates that could enable him to choose the hour of his death, Mr. Holmes found himself at the center of an extraordinary legal battle unfolding between his home state and the United States Justice Department, which on Tuesday moved to strike down the Oregon law by authorizing federal drug agents to take action against any doctor in the state who prescribed such drugs.
Mr. Holmes and three other patients joined in a legal motion brought today in Federal District Court here by Attorney General Hardy Myers of Oregon to impose a stay on the federal directive. A ruling on the state’s request is not expected until Thursday at the earliest.
Five years after voting in favor of assisted suicide, by 60 percent to 40 percent, Oregon residents have at last come face to face with a federal challenge to the practice, under which at least 70 people have taken their own lives. All of them, under terms of the law, had received a diagnosis from two doctors that they had less than six months to live.
Most of the state’s leading officials have been blisteringly critical of the decision by Attorney General John Ashcroft to move against the law.
“This attorney general is supposed to be figuring out who’s responsible for the anthrax,” said Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat and a physician. “To introduce this divisive issue at this point in time is just, to me, unthinkable.”
In Oregon, Mr. Ashcroft’s most prominent supporter is Senator Gordon H. Smith, a Republican who faces re-election next year. “For me,” said Mr. Smith, “it’s an issue of principle upon which I’m prepared to stake my political career.”
But for terminally ill people like Mr. Holmes and the doctors involved, the battle over the law has abruptly put them into an ethical limbo.
A few doctors here said today that they were exploring other legal avenues for continuing to prescribe lethal drugs even if the state’s motion for a stay was unsuccessful, or significantly delayed. But many doctors said that unless the stay was approved, they would be unwilling to prescribe the drugs now, because they could lose their license to write prescriptions.
“If I lost that license, I’d in effect be unable to practice medicine at all,” said Dr. Peter Rasmussen, an oncologist in Salem who is joining the state’s lawsuit. He has at least four patients now seeking the drugs, and he has treated several others Ñ he declines to give a number Ñ who have ended their lives under the law.
At the same time the state asked the court for a stay, the state filed a broader lawsuit arguing that Mr. Ashcroft exceeded his authority under federal drug laws and was illegally seeking to interfere with Oregon’s authority to regulate medicine.
There are at least two dozen terminally ill people in the state who are awaiting final approval from the state to receive prescriptions for lethal medication, said Barbara Coombs Lee, chief sponsor of the assisted-suicide ballot measure, known as the Death With Dignity Act, and president of Compassion in Dying, an organization based in Portland.
Many other Oregonians were contemplating applying for approval, James Romney, 56, is one. Mr. Romney was a high school principal in Clackamas, Ore., until last June, when his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, was diagnosed.
Doctors have told Mr. Romney he had from eight months to two and a half years to live, so he has not yet applied for any lethal drugs but he had planned to at some point.
“I was devastated, totally shocked,” by Mr. Ashcroft’s announcement, Mr. Romney said today at the office of Compassion in Dying, where he went to sign a legal motion in support of the state’s lawsuit.
“It set me back, it took away all my sense of liberty,” he said. “Believe me, just knowing that this is an available option is very liberating for a person with my condition, and they’re trying to take it away from me.”
Mr. Holmes, who lives in suburban Portland, said he still was not sure that he would in the end take lethal medication. Many Oregonians have obtained such drugs under the law but then died of natural causes without ingesting them. Still, he said he had taken comfort in knowing that assisted suicide was an option.
“I’ve lived life pretty much as I’ve wanted to, and I feel I should be able to end it that way if I need to,” said Mr. Holmes, who said he had discussed physician-assisted suicide with his son, who is a physician’s assistant, and his brother, who is a doctor. Both support the concept.
“I could do myself in in a lot of other ways,” said Mr. Holmes, who is beginning to feel some pain from the cancer that has spread to his liver from his colon, and he receives hospice care at his home. “I’ve got three guns in the house. But that’s too violent. It’s too scary.”
Opponents of the law argue that taking one’s own life is an extreme and unjustified act.
“We can take care of pain and depression and anxiety in Oregon like they can in the other 49 states without giving assisted suicide to our patients,” said Dr. Greg Hamilton, a spokesman for a group here called Physicians for Compassionate Care.
But Mr. Holmes, not expecting any miracles, wants the security he says the law provides.
“I certainly believe there are miracles,” he said today, tugging at his gray beard.
“A liver transplant is a miracle,” he said. “When you wake up feeling so good after you’ve felt so badly for so long. So I’ve had a miracle. But I’ve also had enough medical diagnoses to know this, that my days are numbered.”