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Assisted suicide and euthanasia are among the most complex issues facing Americans today. Like the death penalty, these are matters of life and death; like cloning and stem cell research, they involve debates over the ethics of medical technology.

Both issues became prominent in the public eye in 1997, when Oregon became the first state to legalize doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients under the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. Last year, the Justice Department challenged the Oregon law, and this spring the Bush administration announced that Justice would appeal a federal court ruling that it could stand. Although only 22 percent of Americans say they are following the story of this new federal action very or fairly closely (according to a November-December 2001 poll by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health), the issue may gain more prominence as the case moves forward.

Not only are the moral and legal questions surrounding euthanasia and assisted suicide difficult ones for most people, the concepts themselves are often confusing. One 2000 survey of 728 outpatients visiting clinics in Oregon found that a majority didn't understand the difference between assisted suicide, defined as a patient requesting that a doctor prescribe medication and provide advice that would enable the patient to end his life, and euthanasia, in which the doctor directly administers medication that will end the patient's life. (Only 18 percent of those polled could identify both terms correctly.) Further complicating these issues are questions about the extent of a patient's suffering, the mental state of the patient and the role friends and family members play in the decisions.

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