Court Rejects Justice Department Request for New Hearing on Oregon Assisted Suicide Law
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Monday 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, the AP/Detroit Free Press reports (AP/Detroit Free Press, 8/17). 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, U.S. Attorney General John 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, 5/27). DOJ has not said whether it plans to appeal to the Supreme Court (AP/Detroit Free Press, 8/17).