California Healthline Daily Edition

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Attorney General Ashcroft Asks Supreme Court To Ban Assisted Suicide

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft on Tuesday asked the Supreme Court to give federal agents the authority to punish physicians who aid patients in suicide, the Los Angeles Times reports. In his request to the Supreme Court, Ashcroft said that "federal drug laws trumped the state's traditional control over the practice of medicine," according to the Los Angeles Times (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 11/10). Also on Tuesday, President Bush announced that he has accepted Ashcroft's resignation (Bumiller, New York Times, 11/10).

Case History

The move comes after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in August declined to reconsider its decision to uphold an Oregon law allowing physicians to prescribe lethal medications to terminally ill patients, rejecting a Bush administration request to do so. Oregon's 1997 Death With Dignity Act allows physicians to prescribe, but not administer, lethal prescription drugs to a terminally ill patient after two physicians agree that the patient has less than six months to live, has decided to die voluntarily and can make health care decisions.

In 2001, Ashcroft cited the federal Controlled Substances Act in a directive he issued that stated assisted suicide does not serve a medical purpose and warned physicians who prescribe controlled narcotics to assist in patient suicides under the Oregon law that they could face criminal penalties and license suspension or revocation. In May, a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled that Ashcroft had exceeded his authority and that states, not the federal government, have the authority to regulate the practice of medicine. The panel also ruled that the Controlled Substances Act does not authorize the Department of Justice to override the Oregon law. In July, DOJ asked the appeals court for a new hearing on its decision, arguing that the authority of the U.S. attorney general over medications regulated by the federal government allows him to decide whether they are used for legitimate medical purposes (California Healthline, 8/17).

The court likely will decide whether to hear the case by early next year (AP/Washington Times, 11/10). Leaders of Oregon's right-to-die movement said the Supreme Court would turn down the appeal. "This is Ashcroft's parting shot from the far right at the people of Oregon," Scott Swenson, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center, said (Los Angeles Times, 11/10).

Ashcroft Resignation

In his resignation, which was submitted in the form of a handwritten note dated Nov. 2, Ashcroft said that DOJ "would be well served by new leadership and fresh inspiration" and the "demands of justice are both rewarding and depleting." Throughout his tenure, Ashcroft "pushed the envelope on many hot-button issues," including an attempt to gain access to edited records of women who obtained abortions through Planned Parenthood Federation of America as part of its defense of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the Post reports (Eggen/Allen, Washington Post, 11/10).

President Bush said, "I applaud [Ashcroft's] efforts to prevent crime, vigorously enforce our civil rights laws, crack down on corporate wrongdoing, protect the rights of victims and those with disabilities ... [and] I am grateful for his advice on judicial nominations and his efforts to ensure that my judicial nominees receive fair hearings and timely votes" (New York Times, 11/10). Possible Ashcroft successors include Larry Thompson, a former deputy to Ashcroft; White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales; Rudolph Giuliani, former New York City mayor; and Marc Racicot, former governor of Montana and chair of President Bush's re-election campaign; Deputy Attorney General James Comey; U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty in Virginia; and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) (Seper, Washington Times, 11/10). Ashcroft will remain in office at least until the presidential inauguration in January and possibly until his successor is nominated and sworn into office, according to the Journal (Hitt/Fields, Wall Street Journal, 11/10).

Broadcast Coverage

NPR's "All Things Considered" on Tuesday reported on Ashcroft's resignation and his work, including his opposition to Oregon's assisted suicide law (Abramson, "All Things Considered," NPR, 11/9). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.

In addition, NPR's "Morning Edition" on Wednesday reported on Ashcroft's opposition to Oregon's law and the Bush administration's request that the Supreme Court consider overturning the law. The segment includes comments from Dr. Greg Hamilton with Physicians for Compassionate Care; Kevin Neely, spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Justice; Eli Stutsman, an attorney in Portland, Ore., who helped write the law in 1994; Kathryn Tucker, director of legal affairs for Compassion in Dying; and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) (Fogarty, "Morning Edition," NPR, 11/10). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.

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