Judge Okays Suicide Pills For Oregon

WASHINGTON—A federal move that would have effectively overturned Oregon's assisted-suicide law was rejected in a 2-1 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling May 27.

The case, Oregon v. Ashcroft, challenged U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's 2001 interpretation of the federal Controlled Substances Act. Ashcroft had issued a directive prohibiting medical doctors from prescribing suicide doses of federally regulated drugs.

“The 9th Circuit has just told these patients that their lives are expendable,” said Cathy Cleaver Ruse, director of planning and information for the U.S. bishops' Pro-Life Secretariat, of the ruling. She added, however, that the ruling was not at all unexpected.

Ashcroft's directive undid a Bill Clinton-administration ruling that allowed doctors to prescribe federally controlled substances to patients who wanted to die. Ashcroft argued that assisted suicide is not a “legitimate medical purpose for prescribing, dispensing or administering federally controlled substances.”

Voted on in two referenda by Oregonians, the state's Death With Dignity Act -the first and only of its kind in effect in the United States—went into effect in 1997. The law allows doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to patients who are of sound mind and are terminally ill. Since 1997, 171 people have used the law to end their lives before their diseases killed them, according to the state's health department.

Oregon v. Ashcroft “is not, in my judgment, a case where a court has appropriately protected the ability of the people of a state to experiment with heightened protections for individual rights,” said Richard Garnett, a professor at the University of Notre Dame law school.

“Properly understood,” he continued, “this is not really a case where the people of Oregon have elected to provide Oregonians with ‘more’ rights, rights not guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. Instead, the terminally ill in Oregon have been deprived by the so-called Death With Dignity Act of the equal protection of that state's homicide laws, and it is unfortunate that a sound principle of political theory — that is, federalism — is being used to insulate that deprivation from judicial review.”

Supporters of Ashcroft's interpretations of the federal drug law are not pessimistic, however.

“We fully expect this issue to go to the Supreme Court and for the attorney general to be vindicated,” said Dr. David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. “He is fighting for the correct interpretation of the law.”

Though expected to appeal to the Supreme Court, the Justice Department at press time had not made public its next move regarding the case.

Law ‘Here to Stay’?

Proponents of assisted suicide, not surprisingly, see the ruling as much more of a potential long-term victory than their opponents do.

Scott Blaine Swenson, executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center and Oregon Death With Dignity Political Action Fund, would like his opponents in the assisted-suicide debate to surrender in the wake of the ruling.

“I am appealing to opponents to recognize that Oregon's law is here to stay, to stop fighting these laws legally and politically, as those fights are a waste of resources on both sides, since both sides are ultimately concerned about improving end-of-life care,” he said.

But Stevens suggested killing patients couldn't be termed “endof-life care.” At the same time, in the 2001 directive, Ashcroft actually encouraged doctors to prescribe controlled substances for pain management when necessary.

“What we need is not more power for doctors who use drugs to kill their patients but more power for doctors who use drugs to heal and comfort their patients,” Stevens said in a public statement after the ruling. “The whole reason the federal government regulates controlled substances is to prevent their use for harmful purposes. I can't think of any greater harm than to use the drugs to kill.”

Judge Richard Tallman wrote in the court's opinion that Ashcroft's move “far exceeds the scope of his authority under federal law.” Ashcroft's “unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state law-makers interferes with the democratic debate about physician-assisted suicide,” he wrote, and is “unlawful and unenforceable.”

But according to Ruse, who is also a lawyer, Ashcroft was doing his job.

“This is not about an attempt by the attorney general to control Oregon law … it's about whether Oregon should be able to ignore federal law and at the same time co-opt the federal government into facilitating assisted suicides by providing federal prescribing licenses and federally controlled drugs.”

“The Ashcroft directive restores the uniform enforcement of the long-standing federal Controlled Substances Act,” Ruse added, “and also clarifies that aggressive pain management is legitimate medical care even where it unintentionally increases the likelihood of a patient's death.”

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor of National Review Online.

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