Oregon Sues Federal Government Over Assisted Suicide Law
Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers filed a lawsuit yesterday seeking to stop the U.S. Justice Department from blocking the state's landmark physician-assisted suicide law, the Washington Times reports. The move came one day after Attorney General John Ashcroft said that prescribing federally controlled substances to assist suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" and directed the Drug Enforcement Administration to "target" the prescription licenses of doctors who prescribe such drugs for terminally ill patients (Seper, Washington Times, 11/8). The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Salem, Ore., seeks a temporary injunction preventing the federal government from implementing the new policy. A second motion alleges that Ashcroft exceeded his authority by "limit[ing] the practice of medicine in Oregon." Kevin Neely, a spokesperson for Myers, said, "Ultimately, what we're seeking to do is waylay the federal government from illegally interfering in the practice of medicine in Oregon" (Cain, AP/Portland Oregonian, 11/7). Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), who is also a physician, led the criticism of Ashcroft's decision among Oregon officials and advocates of assisted suicide. "This attorney general is supposed to be figuring out who's responsible for the anthrax. To introduce this divisive issue at this point in time is just, to me, unthinkable," Kitzhaber said (Verhovek, New York Times, 11/8).
A federal judge was "tentatively scheduled" to hear the state's request for an injunction today, the Los Angeles Times reports. Until the issue is settled, doctors statewide said they would not prescribe lethal drugs for fear of losing their prescription licenses (Murphy/Marshall, Los Angeles Times, 11/8). "If I lost that license, I'd in effect be unable to practice medicine," Dr. Peter Rasmussen, who joined the state's lawsuit and has "at least" four terminally ill patients who are seeking lethal drugs, said. Four other patients in similar situations also joined the state's lawsuit. According to Barbara Coombs Lee, president of the Portland-based Compassion in Dying, at least 24 Oregon patients are awaiting "final approval" to receive lethal medications (New York Times, 11/8). While Lee said that the DEA would overstep its bounds under Ashcroft's decision, Dr. Gregory Hamilton of Physicians for Compassionate Care disagreed. "Killing patients is not a medical practice. If the federal government relinquishes control of this, the next thing a state might do is allow doctors to give patients unrequested lethal injections," he said. Under Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, which was approved by voters in 1994 and 1997, doctors can provide, but not administer, lethal drugs to terminally ill patients after two physicians concur that the patient has less than six months to live, has voluntarily chosen to die and is capable of making health care decisions. At least 70 people have taken their lives under the law since 1997 (AP/Portland Oregonian, 11/7).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.