Supreme Court To Hear Case on Oregon’s Physician-Assisted Suicide Law
Beginning Wednesday, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the Bush administration's challenge to Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law, the Los Angeles Times reports. The case, now known as Gonzalez v. Oregon, was brought by former Attorney General John Ashcroft and is being argued by current Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 10/2). The Death With Dignity Act, approved by Oregon voters to go into effect in 1998, is the only such law in the country. It 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, Ashcroft issued a directive that said assisted-suicide serves "no legitimate 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. Ashcroft argued that the law violates the federal Controlled Substances Act . U.S. District Judge Robert Jones in 2003 ruled that the federal government did not have the authority to overturn the law -- a decision upheld in May 2004 by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In November 2004, Ashcroft asked the Supreme Court to reverse that decision (California Healthline, 2/23).
Since 1998, 208 people, mostly dying from cancer, have used medication to end their lives, the Times reports. According to the Times, the case involves the clash between the "state's traditional power to regulate the practice of medicine against the federal government's authority to regulate drugs" (Los Angeles Times, 10/2).
NPR's "All Things Considered" on Sunday reported on Oregon's law. The segment includes comments from Peter Rasmussen, an Oregon oncologist who has written lethal prescriptions for his patients under the law; Ken Stevens, president of Physicians for Compassionate Care; Susan Tolle, director of the Center for Ethics at Oregon Health and Science University; and Valerie Vollmar, law professor at Willamette University (Fogarty, "All Things Considered," NPR, 10/2). 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.