Christian doctors and lawyers are lamenting a federal appeals court decision that allows Oregon doctors to continue writing prescriptions to end the lives of their terminally ill patients.

"The result is putting deadly drugs in the hands of physicians who will use them not to heal or relieve pain, but simply to kill," said David Stevens, executive director of the 17,000-member Christian Medical Association. "This is not medicine; this is not compassion; it is killing."

Oregon's Death With Dignity Act authorizes lethal prescriptions for terminally ill patients who have less than six months to live. Oregon is the only state that allows assisted suicide. State records show that 171 people have died after ingesting physician-prescribed lethal drugs since 1998.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case pitted the state of Oregon against Attorney General John Ashcroft. Oregon was appealing an interpretive rule by Ashcroft that criminalized the practice of doctors helping their patients commit suicide with drugs regulated by the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The Ninth Circuit—the same court that ruled the term "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional—ruled May 26 by a 2-1 margin that "state governments bear the primary responsibility for evaluating physician assisted suicide."

Walter Weber, senior litigation counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, said the Supreme Court likely will be the ultimate arbiter in the case. Oregon is the only state that allows assisted suicide.

Assisted suicide is fraught with potential abuses, according to Weber. Relatives who consider long-term health care too burdensome may pressure terminally ill patients into taking their lives. And health-care providers may cap benefits if the law states that life support is optional.

Kenneth Stevens is a Portland, Oregon, radiation oncologist and president of the 1,400-member Physicians for Compassionate Care, a secular organization that opposes assisted suicide. He said assisted suicide "is a reversal of the historic role of physicians as healers, as comforters, as counselors."

In 1982, Stevens's wife's lymphoma had infected her lymph nodes, brain, and spine. Her doctor implied that she should commit suicide with an overdose of painkillers, Stevens said.

"As I walked her to the car, she said, 'He wants me to kill myself,' and it just devastated her," Stevens said. "It made me realize at that time just how important the trust is between a doctor and the patient."

Doctors say depression is the primary factor linked to assisted suicide. But few people who die from lethal prescriptions are receiving psychiatric evaluation, David Stevens said. In 1998, only 5 of the 16 people who died by assisted suicide received psychiatric evaluation. In 2003, it was only 2 of 42.

"That's a grave concern to us," Stevens said. "Many people are depressed, and they should be treated for their depression, not killed."

Related Elsewhere:

The opinion in State of Oregon v. Ashcroft is available from

The Christian Medical Association has information about its activities and well as publications regarding medical issues.

Physicians for Compassionate Care has news highlights about medical issues.

More Christianity Today articles about suicide from our Life Ethics page includes:

Physician-Assisted Suicide Bill Dies in Hawaii Senate | If passed, Hawaii would have joined Oregon as the only states with such laws. (May 03, 2002)
Suicide - A Preventable Tragedy? | A ministry helps churches handle the complex issue. (July 6, 2000)
CT Classic: Suicide and the Silence of Scripture | Though the church has come to opposing conclusions about the fate of victims, we have a mandate to minister to those left behind. (July 6, 2000)
Is Suicide Unforgivable? | What is the biblical hope and comfort we can offer a suicide victim's family and friends? (July 6, 2000)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.