When I helped my mother die in 1983, there was no Oregon. That is, there was no state where physician-assisted suicide was legal. Not that it would have mattered, because the law applies only to residents of Oregon and my mother lived in New York. So we were on our own, the three of us: my mother, who was dying of ovarian cancer, but in her view not fast enough; my husband, a mathematics professor; and I, my mother's only child. Amateur criminals all. But we muddled through. She got the pills down. She slipped away gratefully, gracefully, peacefully.
So it worked for us, but it might not have. Many terminally ill people who want to die try and fail and wind up suffering more than they did before. But in most cases, they don't even try. They are too weak or don't have the means to end their lives themselves, and their loved ones are too frightened to help. Not unreasonable, since assisted suicide is illegal. If you're a physician and help a patient die, you lose your license as well.
In his efforts to undo Oregon, which were firmly rejected last week by a federal appeals court, this was what Attorney General John Ashcroft wanted to happen. Another result was likely, though: Wary of prosecution, physicians would inevitably cut back on pain medication, in fear of accidental deaths.
The Oregon law has safeguards. Not all patients qualify, and physicians in Oregon who wish to participate in helping a patient die may only write out a prescription. They can be present during the death, but they must not assist the patient directly or in any way administer a deadly dose of anything.
The Ashcroft court defeat comes at a dramatic moment for those of us in the movement. The 10th anniversary of the Oregon law is approaching. There have been some surprises. Probably the biggest, to those on both sides of this issue, is how few people have taken advantage of the law -- only about 30 a year. That might cause some to question whether the fight is worth it, not only to keep physician-assisted suicide legal in Oregon but to get it going in other states, which proponents are trying, unsuccessfully so far, to do.
It is worth it for a simple reason: peace of mind. There is no exact way to measure peace of mind, but studies show it is suffering that most dying people fear, not death. That means those who happen to live in the state of Oregon -- sick or not -- have a kind of insurance the rest of us don't have: They know they can get out of life when they are desperate to do so.
I saw firsthand what happens when fear is quieted. When my mother finally had in her possession a lethal dose of Nembutal, a calm came over her that was almost weird. My aunt, who didn't know her sister was plotting to die, wondered if she might be recovering. "Your mother seems so -- well," she said to me. "Can she be getting better?"
In a way, I could have replied, yes, because with her fear gone, she became herself again. I could tell because she started bossing me around the way she used to. "Look in my closet," she commanded. "There's an awful hat I bought in Bloomingdale's. Don't forget to return it. The receipt is in the bag."
Not in the slightest was my mother getting better physically. She had pain medication, but her nausea was almost constant, her discomfort great -- in a word, she was miserable and, at the most, had only a few months, maybe weeks, to live. But she had become emotionally well because she'd returned to a place she had grown accustomed to in the course of her life: the driver's seat.
When I was in Oregon a couple of years ago, I visited some people who had requested the means to die. Two of them are particularly memorable. Richard Holmes, bearded, scruffy and 73, who lived outside of Portland, had been suffering with colon cancer -- now metastasized to the liver -- for about three years. Weak as he was, at the time of our visit, he was still able to walk and was as feisty, his son said, as he'd always been. A girlie magazine sat on his coffee table, a framed photograph of his hospice nurse on the mantle. In a small bottle in his basement, he had more than enough Nembutal to kill him.
"When I get sick enough, I'll take it," he said. "Hell, it makes sense to me. I don't want to die in a coma and not know what's going on."
And there was Laura Meirndorf from Scotts Mills, Ore., population 300. Laura , 76, who had been a logger, was a big woman with narrow eyes and swollen ankles and feet, which were in a pair of somewhat dog-eaten scuffs.
After smoking three packs of cigarettes a day for most of her adult life, Laura got lung cancer. She decided chemo wasn't for her. "I didn't see any point in it," she growled cheerfully. "I seen too many people go through that and then die." When she heard about the assisted-suicide law, she liked what she heard. "My kids watched their father die inch by inch. I didn't want that."
Laura's Nembutal sat on top of her refrigerator. "If I get hurtin' real bad, I can run in there and drink it down," she said with a snort. "I mean, you don't have to use it, but if you want it, it's there."
Betty Rollin is a member of the board of directors of the Death With Dignity National Center and the author of "Last Wish."