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Summer 2004

Ashcroft's Third Strike Against Aid-in-Dying

Attorney General Rejects Defeat, Seeks Rehearing

On July 13 the Bush administration challenged the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that Attorney General John Ashcroft overstepped his authority by attacking the Oregon assisted dying law. The U.S. Department of Justice asked three federal judges to reconsider their 2-1 ruling that Ashcroft has "no authority to determine state medical practice."

In his May 26 opinion Judge Richard C. Tallman rebuked Ashcroft's directive as "unlawful and unenforceable," adding it "interferes with the democratic debate about physician-assisted suicide and far exceeds the scope of his authority."

The Ninth Circuit Court agreed with Compassion that the Oregon aid-in-dying law is beyond the reach of Ashcroft's Department of Justice. Sixteen terminally ill patients courageously came forward to protest Ashcroft's threat. Only five patients remain alive to see the historic developments in Oregon v. Ashcroft.

Ashcroft requests either a rehearing before the three federal judges, or a rehearing before an eleven judge (en banc) panel. Under appellate court rules, there is no deadline for the judges to respond to Ashcroft's petition. If the judges decide not to hear the case, Ashcroft has 90 days to take an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Compassion vows to continue the fight, and is able to, thanks to its generous legal team at Heller, Ehrman, White and McAuliffe. The state of Oregon, Compassion in Dying and Oregon Death With Dignity will have an opportunity to submit opposing briefs before the court decides to grant a rehearing.

Bishops Losing Control

Catholics for a Free Choice released the results of a poll of Catholic voters on social issues. "The View from Mainstream America" shows a majority of Catholics (70%) say the U.S. Bishops have little influence on most Catholics in this political season.

This is the first time the survey addressed physician aid-in-dying. Catholics are more likely to stand with other Americans than with their bishops. A majority (53%) support "making it legal for doctors to assist in the death of a terminally ill patient." Opinions on aid-in-dying are divided along lines of age, politics and time spent in church. A Catholic base of white, liberal, baby boomers who occasionally attend church consistently support aid-in-dying and choice at the end-of-life. Compassion applauds this ground breaking survey. Clearly Catholic voters make a distinction between church doctrine and personal decisions.

Take Action

There are 565 Catholic hospitals in the nation and millions of nurses, doctors and hospital workers who follow church doctrine. The impact is enormous for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Some health care institutions have religious or ethical objections to honoring wishes of patients (or their legally authorized surrogates) about end-of-life care. However, little is known about the scope of this problem.

Compassion in Dying is working with the National Women's Law Center to help collect data about this important issue. We need your help. Let us know if you have faced this problem by completing a short survey.

Take the Survey

To receive a survey in the mail call Compassion In Dying at 503.221.9556.

If you have any additional questions or comments, you can contact the National Women's Law Center at 202.588.5180 or by email at

In the News

Fort Worth Star Telegram 5/7
Murder-Suicides Rise Among Elderly

Kiplinger's Retirement Report 6/04
Making Sure You Go Your Own Way

National Law Journal 6/7
0-2 in 9th, Ashcroft May Seek Review

Canadian Medical Association Journal 6/8
Humanity in Medicine, Actor Teaches Clinicians

Philosophy Talk 6/8
Dignity and the End of Life

Day to Day, National Public Radio 6/24
Reserving The Right to Die

On My Mind

As Compassion members and supporters know, we are engaged in unification discussions with End-of-Life Choices. After a period of comment from interested parties, we expect to make a final decision in late October. Yesterday we had our first meeting with the specialist in nonprofit law who will help us through the due diligence process. Her first question was, "What's in it for each organization?"

I confess the question surprised me, because none of us had been thinking of unification as something "for" the organizations. All our conversations have been about the movement as a whole. Will we better serve dying patients, educate the public and pass laws to improve care and expand choice as a single, unified organization, or as two organizations on parallel tracks? Are we duplicating our efforts and wasting precious resources? Are there advantages to multiple organizations?

Through our discussions we've learned how thoroughly our organizations complement one another. Compassion is strong in legal advocacy, Choices in grassroots networking. Choices serves patients with centralized counseling, while Compassion specializes in community-based teams. And so on, in a multitude of areas.

The farther along we go in the process, the more excited I become. The possibilities continue to magnify. I imagine Compassion's pursuit of accountability in cases of under treated pain, matched with Choices community presence at 90 chapters throughout the nation. I imagine Choices' political presence in our nation's capitol, armed with Compassion's stewardship of Oregon's remarkable success. And I imagine supporters all over the nation, glad to know one organization covers all the fronts, will put their contributions to work in the area of greatest need and potential.

In a few years I believe we'll look back at the unification of Choices and Compassion as the point where our movement really gained momentum and national impact. I can hardly wait!

Remembering Hugh Gallagher

Our own movement, people with disabilities, and the nation lost a giant of political activism and commentary when Hugh Gregory Gallagher died July 13, 2004 in Washington D.C. Hugh almost died of polio at age 19, but he survived to give the world more than 50 years of astute scholarship, gentle and mischievous humor and wise leadership. He served on the Compassion board for 7 years.

Hugh wrote the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, the first disability rights law in the nation. He is best known, however, for authoring "FDR's Splendid Deception," examining the effect of polio on Roosevelt's life; "Black Bird Fly Away: Disabled in an Able-Bodied World," "By Trust Betrayed: Patients, Physicians and the License to Kill in the Third Reich" and "Etok: A Story of Eskimo Power."

Breaking from other leaders in disability rights, Hugh supported legalization of assisted dying, after engaging in a deep examination of his conscience and his faith. In the end he decided, "I believe that man has free will. To live or die in the face of suffering is inescapably a decision he alone must make. I would not dare presume to interfere in the making of this decision, just as I would fight to preserve the freedom of the person to make it."

Hugh paid dearly for reaching this conclusion. His friends in the leadership of ADAPT and Not Dead Yet hounded him to change his mind, and when they failed they protested at his speeches, calling him a "pawn" and worse. Hugh took all this with grace and humor. And he never faltered in his resolve. "Through good fortune and bad times, I have lived my life independently," he wrote in reply. "I believe I have a right to make my own decisions and I do not intend to let go of this right on my deathbed."

Hugh lived a remarkable life and he was a hero to us.

New York Times: In Oregon Choosing Death Over Suffering

Read the New York Times article online (requires fee)
View the multimedia show At Life's End

Call for Comments

Member Feedback Due September 30th

Now is the time to let us know what you think about unifying Compassion In Dying and End-of-Life Choices. We welcome your comments and feedback, but it is critical we hear from you regarding unification before September 30th.

As we build a new organization what are your wishes? What would you like to see accomplished by a new, stronger organization? How can we best serve you? How can we best serve the aid-in-dying movement? In order to be sure a new organization represents the values of our friends and supporters, it is essential we hear from you.

Take a few minutes today to send a note with your comments and opinions to the address below, or send us an email message at If you find it easier to call us on the phone, our staff is always available for questions and comments. Call us at 503.221.9556.

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This article was provided by Compassion in Dying.