RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Oregon is the only state where physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill is legal. California may be next. As early as next week, lawmakers in Sacramento will vote on a bill that's patterned after Oregon's Death With Dignity Act. The story of what happened to one Oregon man is a key part of the California debate as Colin Fogarty of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.
COLIN FOGARTY reporting:
Linda Pruitt keeps her husband's ashes in an elegant wood box in her living room. She lives in the rural town of Estacada, Oregon. It was here in February that David Pruitt, a 42-year-old logger, spent his final weeks riddled with cancer. He received hospice care and plenty of pain medication, but Linda Pruitt says her husband wanted control over his death.
Mrs. LINDA PRUITT (David's Wife): He told me--not asked--he told me he wanted to go into the woods and shoot himself. And I'm practical. I said, `Honey, you can't do that.'
FOGARTY: So David Pruitt began the process of getting a lethal dose of drugs under the Oregon Death With Dignity Act. After the required three requests, two physician consultations and a two-week waiting period, David Pruitt ate apple sauce laced with 10 grams of barbiturates, far more than a lethal dose.
Mrs. PRUITT: I told him, `I love you.' And he smiled and said, `I love you, too,' and closed his eyes.
FOGARTY: David Pruitt remained unconscious for nearly three days and then he opened his eyes.
Mrs. PRUITT: `Honey?' And I--`Yeah, honey?' He said, `What the hell happened? Why am I not dead?' And I lost it.
FOGARTY: David Pruitt died of natural causes two weeks later. He told his family he had a religious experience, that God didn't want him to end his own life. His brother, Steve Pruitt, believes that just proves the physician-assisted suicide law is morally wrong.
Mr. STEVE PRUITT (David's Brother): God gives life and he takes it, and I don't believe it's in the course of man to determine at what point we die.
FOGARTY: But Linda Pruitt disagrees.
Mrs. PRUITT: Oregon voted it in twice and I really think I would not do it, but I do believe that each person has a right to make that choice.
FOGARTY: The debate within the Pruitt family is the same one raging in Sacramento where California lawmakers will vote on whether to adopt the state's own Death With Dignity Act. Los Angeles area Democrat, Lloyd Levine, says in 208 deaths in Oregon, what happened to David Pruitt is unique. In nearly every other case, patients died peacefully.
Mr. LLOYD LEVINE (Democrat, Los Angeles): The Oregon experience has given us seven years of hard data to show exactly what this law does when put it into effect, to show that it wasn't misused, to show the safeguards work and they work well.
FOGARTY: But Dr. Ken Stevens with the Portland-based opposition group Physicians for Compassionate Care is campaigning just as vigorously to make sure California doesn't become the largest jurisdiction in the world to legalize physician-assisted suicide.
Dr. KEN STEVENS (Physicians for Compassionate Care): And I think that those that are in favor of assisted suicide just sort of blithely say everything's fine. Yet, when you start looking at individual cases, you see real problems.
FOGARTY: The Oregon Board of Pharmacy is investigating why David Pruitt survived what has in every other case been a lethal dose of barbiturates. As for the pending legislation in California, even if lawmakers there approve it, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has not said whether he would sign it.
For NPR News, I'm Colin Fogarty in Portland.
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