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Hours before Oregon was to become the first place anywhere in the world to legalize physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill, a federal judge Wednesday blocked the law from taking effect.

U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan issued a temporary restraining order in Eugene, Ore., saying he wanted to hear arguments about the law's constitutionality before allowing the bitterly contested ballot measure to go into effect.Hogan set a Dec. 19 hearing in the federal court in Eugene.

The motion to block the law was filed by James Bopp, an Indiana lawyer and nationally known opponent of assisted suicides, and a Eugene attorney. Bopp and other critics challenged the law on the grounds it violates the constitutional protection of freedom of religion.

"We're doing this so that people will not kill themselves," Bopp said.

The courtroom battle highlighted the legal, medical and ethical questions that surround Measure 16, approved by voters in November.

Supporters of the Oregon measure expressed anger at the judge's ruling but predicted the law would be upheld, even if the legal contest reaches the U.S. Supreme Court. The state attorney general's office has said the law violates no federal statutes and is constitutional.

"The people of Oregon gave us a verdict. Now these (opponents) are not allowing freedom of choice in a democratic society. It's the choice of the majority of the people," said Peter Goodwin, associate professor of family medicine at Oregon Health Sciences University.

Among those critical of the judge's ruling was Michael Vernon, a Portland man terminally ill with AIDS who was one of the ballot measure's most prominent supporters.

Vernon doesn't know if he has the courage to commit suicide. But he believes he should have the right to choose a dignified and painless death.

"I am extremely disappointed," he said after the ruling. "This will probably end up at the Supreme Court."

Since the law was approved by voters, medical and legal experts have been struggling over how to implement the measure with little precedent to guide them.

The Oregon measure limits those eligible for assisted suicide to mentally competent adults who have been diagnosed as having a terminal illness with six months or less to live. A second opinion from another physician must be obtained, and the request for assistance in suicide - by a lethal dose of prescription drugs - must be made three times.

The law requires a 15-day waiting period after making the third request.

"This is a big experiment," said Dr. Martin Skinner, a Portland physician who represents the Oregon Medical Association on this issue. The physician organization was split on the assisted suicide measure.

But Skinner is not neutral when it comes to putting this into practice.

"We've got a lot of problems with implementing this," he said.