Federal Appeals Court Panel Upholds Oregon Physician-Assisted Suicide Law
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled that Attorney General John Ashcroft "far exceeded his authority by interfering" with the 1997 Death With Dignity Act, an Oregon law that allows physician-assisted suicide, the Washington Post reports (Harden, Washington Post, 5/27). The panel upheld a decision issued last year by U.S. District Judge Robert Jones. Previous efforts by the Department of Justice to overturn the law have failed in the courts. Under the Oregon law -- the only such law in the nation -- physicians may 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 (California Healthline, 5/8/03). In 2001, Ashcroft issued a directive that said assisted suicide serves "no legitimate medical purpose" and warned physicians who prescribe controlled narcotics to assist in patients suicides under the Oregon law that they could face criminal penalties and license suspension or revocation (Price, Washington Times, 5/27). Ashcroft argued that the law violates the federal Controlled Substances Act.
In a 2-1 decision that used "unusually pointed language to rebuke" Ashcroft, the panel ruled that states, not the federal government, have the authority to regulate the practice of medicine and that the "text, purpose and history" of the Controlled Substances Act does not "authorize the DOJ to use it to override the Oregon law," according to the New York Times (Liptak, New York Times, 5/26). "The attorney general's unilateral attempt to regulate federal medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes with the democratic debate about physician-assisted suicide and far exceeds the scope of his authority under federal law," Judge Richard Tallman wrote in the decision (AP/Dallas Morning News, 5/26). Tallman added that Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act to help prevent drug abuse, not define proper medical treatment (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 5/27). In the decision, Tallman wrote that the panel had no opinion on whether assisted suicide "is inconsistent with the public interest or constitutes illegitimate medical care," adding, "This case is simply about who gets to decide" (Washington Post, 5/27). The panel also "appeared to acknowledge" that Congress has the authority to regulate the practice of assisted suicide, according to the Times (New York Times, 5/27). However, the panel said that "there is no evidence" Congress asked the attorney general to take such action, according to the Washington Times. The panel ordered an injunction that blocked the directive Ashcroft issued in 2001 "to be continued in full force and effect" (Washington Times, 5/27). Judge Clifford Wallace, who dissented in the decision, wrote in his opinion that DOJ opposition to assisted suicide should have received "substantial deference," adding that "Congress is free to enact legislation limiting or counteracting" the directive Ashcroft issued in 2001 (AP/Dallas Morning News, 5/26).
Charles Miller, a DOJ spokesperson, said that department attorneys had no comment and will review the decision. George Eighmey, executive director of the Oregon chapter of Compassion in Dying, said, "I believe today's decision ... has been a huge victory for Oregon and for all Oregonians who believe in end-of-life choices" (Weinstein, Los Angeles Times, 5/27). Kevin Neely, a spokesperson for Oregon Attorney General Hardy Rivers (D), said, "This is a clear defense, not just of the Death With Dignity Act, but a clear defense of a state's authority to regulate its own medical practices" (Washington Times, 5/27). Scott Swenson, executive director of Death With Dignity, said, "Our base of support is growing across the country. What Oregon has demonstrated is that this is a well-regulated medical practice in which patients and physicians can have this as an option of last resort." However, Dr. Gregory Hamilton, a spokesperson for Physicians for Compassionate Care, said, "Oregon has unilaterally exempted itself from the federal law protecting patients from being given overdoses of federally controlled substances" (San Francisco Chronicle, 5/27). Oregon Right to Life Executive Director Gayle Atteberry criticized the decision and expressed hope that Ashcroft would appeal the case (Los Angeles Times, 5/27). NPR's "All Things Considered" on Wednesday reported on the decision (Fogarty, "All Things Considered," NPR, 5/26). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer. KCRW's "Which Way, L.A.?" on Wednesday included an interview with former Oregon state Rep. George Eighmey (D), executive director of Compassion in Dying, about the Oregon law (Olney, "Which Way, L.A.?," KCRW, 5/26). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.