Federal Judge Upholds Oregon’s Assisted Suicide Law
Ruling that the Justice Department "overstepped [its] authority" in attempting to nullify Oregon's physician assisted-suicide law, a federal judge yesterday issued a permanent injunction preventing the federal government from interfering with the statute, the Los Angeles Times reports. In a ruling critical of Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose November directive seeking to nullify the law began the legal dispute, U.S. District Judge Robert Jones of Portland, Ore., wrote, "To allow an attorney general ... to determine the legitimacy of a particular medical practice ... would be unprecedented and extraordinary" (Murphy, Los Angeles Times, 4/18). The federal government, he said, is not authorized to "act as a national medical board" and regulate how doctors treat patients. He added that Ashcroft attempted to "stifle an ongoing, earnest and profound debate in the various states concerning physician-assisted suicide." Jones said, "[T]he fact that opposition to assisted suicide may be fully justified, morally, ethically, religiously or otherwise, does not permit a federal statute to be manipulated from its true meaning to satisfy even a worthy goal" (Booth, Washington Post, 4/18). Justice Department officials said privately that they likely will appeal the decision, under which the Oregon law will stand unless Jones' ruling is overturned by a higher court (Carroll/Fields, Wall Street Journal, 4/18). Assistant Attorney General Robert McCallum said the department "remains convinced" that it correctly determined that federal law prohibits the use of controlled substances for assisted suicide. "A just and caring society should do its best to assist in coping with the problems that afflict the terminally ill. It should not abandon or assist in killing them," he said (Johnson, USA Today, 4/18).
At issue is Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, approved by voters in 1994 and reaffirmed three years later. The law, the only one of its kind in the nation, allows physicians to prescribe -- but not administer -- a lethal dose of drugs to individuals who two doctors confirm have less than six months to live (McCall, AP/Nando Times, 4/17). From 1997, when the law took effect, to 2001, 141 lethal prescriptions were issued, resulting in 91 physician-assisted suicides (Los Angeles Times, 4/18). Ashcroft in November reversed a 1998 Justice Department decision not to pursue legal action against Oregon doctors who complied with the provisions of the law, issuing a directive saying that prescribing lethal doses of medications was not a "legitimate medical purpose" and violated the federal Controlled Substances Act (Liptak, New York Times, 4/18). He ordered the Drug Enforcement Administration to target the prescription licenses of doctors who prescribed lethal doses, a move that would have effectively nullified the Oregon law. Oregon then filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the federal government, which Jones granted yesterday (Seper, Washington Times, 4/18).
Proponents of physician-assisted suicide applauded the decision -- which did not address whether there is a constitutional right to assisted suicide -- saying that it is "so narrow that it almost will certainly withstand an appeal." "The ruling today respects and secures the right of dying Oregonians to make their own decisions," Estelle Rogers, executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center, said, adding, "[T]oday's ruling also protects the ability of physicians nationwide to provide adequate and appropriate pain care to their terminally ill patients, without fear that the DEA will second-guess their intent and punish them" (Los Angeles Times, 4/18).
Opponents of physician-assisted suicide criticized Jones' ruling. "Assisted suicide is not a legitimate medical purpose in Oregon or anywhere in the world," Dr. Greg Hamilton, a spokesperson for Physicians for Compassionate Care, said (New York Times, 4/18). James Bopp, an attorney for the National Right to Life Committee, said that Jones' ruling was not consistent with a Supreme Court decision last year that found that sections of California's medical marijuana law violated the Controlled Substances Act. "If using marijuana for glaucoma is not permitted by the Supreme Court, under the pretext of medical care, I don't see how killing patients can be justified," he said (Los Angeles Times, 4/18).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.