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Saturday, February 24, 2001

death law should
be spared

Bullet The issue: The Bush administration may try to nullify an Oregon law permitting physician-assisted death.
Bullet Our view: The federal government should not block the Oregon program.

OREGON is the only state that allows terminally ill patients to die with a doctor's help, but more states may follow in time. They should, because this is a way to end pointless suffering. Last November a physician-assisted-death initiative was narrowly defeated in Maine.

Supporters of the Oregon law are concerned that conservatives in Washington may take action to nullify the statute. Such measures should be resisted.

In 1998 then-Attorney General Janet Reno ruled that federal drug agents should not take action against doctors who help terminally ill patients die under Oregon's law.

In an attempt to circumvent Reno's order, a bill was introduced in the Senate that would have revoked the licenses to prescribe drugs of doctors who use federally controlled substances to aid a patient's death. (Every terminally patient who has died under the law took a federally controlled substance, such as a barbiturate.)

The bill died in committee. However, during last year's election campaign, George W. Bush said he would have supported the legislation. Assisted-suicide opponents hope he will issue an executive order to make it more difficult for doctors to use the Oregon law.

Not many people have chosen physician-assisted death. The Oregon Health Division reported that 27 people used the law in 2000, the same number as the previous year. About 70 people have ended their lives under the care of doctors since the Death With Dignity Act took effect in October 1997.

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, in a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, said, "there is no evidence of a crisis that would compel the federal government to pursue extraordinary means to overturn" the law.

Ashcroft, then a Missouri senator, was not among the anti-assisted-death bill's co-sponsors. However, he has spoken against using government money, such as Medicare or Medicaid, to support the Oregon law.

Outside the United States, the Netherlands has taken the lead on this issue. Its parliament voted in January to make physician-assisted death legal, giving final approval to a practice that the courts have permitted since 1973.

Switzerland also permits physician-assisted death but has not taken official action to legalize it.

In Hawaii, a governor's advisory committee in 1998 recommended legalization of physician-assisted death with safeguards. A.A. Smyser, the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor, was a member of that committee and has written extensively in support of assisted death.

Governor Cayetano supports the idea, as does Mayor Harris. Unfortunately, thus far the recommendation has made no progress in the Legislature.

Public opinion surveys show support of physician-assisted death in Hawaii by 60 percent or more of respondents, but the Catholic Church and other religious groups have been able to block legislative action. That could change as understanding of the issue grows.

For the moment, however, the action is in Washington, where a battle over physician-assisted death is brewing. The new Bush administration should refrain from taking action that would block implementation of the Oregon law.

Immigration law

Bullet The issue: A prominent Honolulu restaurateur faces deportation to his native Thailand.
Bullet Our view: The immigration law should be softened to permit the exercise of discretion in such cases.

MANY people in Honolulu sympathize with Chai Chaowasaree, the chef and restaurateur who faces deportation to his native Thailand unless his federal court appeal is successful.

The owner of two popular Thai restaurants here, Chai got into trouble when the Immigration and Naturalization Service determined that his 1985 marriage to a Big Island woman was fraudulent. Marriage to an American citizen is a ground for aliens to obtain permanent resident status. Marriage fraud can lead to deportation.

Chai's plight worsened when he left the country last year to visit his ailing father in Thailand. He had been fighting the INS' attempt to deport him. By leaving the country, immigration officials say, he voided his appeal from a 1993 deportation order.

A temporary restraining order issued by the federal district court currently prevents the INS from deporting him. He is being held at the Oahu Community Correctional Center as a flight risk.

The district director of the INS, Donald Radcliffe, points out that the 1996 immigration law removed the service's authority to exercise lenience, making it easier to deport people. Chai's situation cries out for clemency. He is widely respected as an employer and a member of the community. But his plight is not unique. The law has been criticized for harsh consequences suffered by thousands of immigrants.

In one case reported in these pages recently by columnist Anthony Lewis, a woman who had been brought to the United States as a child was served with a deportation notice because she had pulled another woman's hair in 1988 in a quarrel over a boyfriend.

Even INS officials have concluded that the 1996 act should be amended to soften some of its harsh features. For example, the INS argues that judges are better equipped than prosecutors to consider matters of discretion, so immigration judges should be given back the power to do so -- which the 1996 act stripped from them.

Chai's situation brings home to Hawaii the need to revise the immigration law. Even if he did commit the violation of which he is accused, his subsequent behavior surely warrants less draconian treatment than deportation.

Published by Liberty Newspapers Limited Partnership

Rupert E. Phillips, CEO

Frank Bridgewater, Acting Managing Editor

Diane Yukihiro Chang, Senior Editor & Editorial Page Editor

Michael Rovner, Assistant Managing Editor

A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor

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© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin