Oregonians ‘Outraged’ by Ashcroft’s Directive Targeting State’s Physician-Assisted Suicide Law
USA Today reports on the "outrage" that many Oregon public officials and patients are expressing after Attorney General John Ashcroft last week issued a directive to the Drug Enforcement Administration to target the prescription licenses of doctors who prescribe lethal drugs for terminally ill patients (Ritter, USA Today, 11/12). Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, the only law of its kind in the nation, allows doctors to prescribe, but not administer, lethal drugs to a terminally ill patient after two physicians agree that the patient has less than six months to live, has chosen to die voluntarily and is capable of making health care decisions (California Healthline, 11/9). On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert Jones issued a temporary restraining order against the directive, and Oregon's law will remain effective at least until a hearing Nov. 20. Meanwhile, Ashcroft's decision has drawn the ire of several Oregon officials, including Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D). Kitzhaber said, "Given everything that the country is going through right now, with the country trying to respond to anthrax, why John Ashcroft picked this moment to inject this divisive issue into the public debate is beyond me." Jim Romney, an Oregon resident with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, said, "I felt quite liberated knowing there was hope for me in terms of how I could die. But I was devastated by [Ashcroft's order]. I believe to not have the option robs me of my rights. It really set me back." Soon after Ashcroft's order, "worried patients" began calling the Compassion in Dying Federation, according to Barbara Coombs Lee, president of the federation. "[Patients] level of distress and anger is very high," she said (USA Today, 11/12).
Ashcroft's directive "overriding" Oregon's authority to regulate physician-assisted suicide is particularly "troubling" because it allows a federal law enforcement agency to "inject itself into questions of medical practice traditionally regulated by the states," a Washington Post editorial says. Despite the controversy around the issue of physician-assisted suicide, the editorial says that Ashcroft "should not have brushed aside Oregon's careful handling of a difficult and sensitive issue." The editorial says that Ashcroft's policy may have "unintended bad effects" on the "much larger area of pain management for the dying." Although the Justice Department has said that "pain management is a protected function" and that any changes in law enforcement will be confined to Oregon," the editorial says that the order should still cause concern because it could give "an implicit green light to federal authorities to intrude in difficult-to-parse medical decisions." The editorial concludes that although the directive is "plainly intended" to address Oregon's law, the "Ashcroft strategy for doing so is a troubling federal encroachment on medical authority and state autonomy alike" (Washington Post, 11/10).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.