Pubdate: Thu, 18 Apr 2002
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2002 The Charlotte Observer
Author: William Booth (Washington Post)
Note: Staff writers Taylor Batten and Mark Johnson contributed to this article.


LOS ANGELES - A federal judge in Portland ruled Wednesday that the Bush 
administration lacks the authority to overturn a voter-backed Oregon law 
permitting physician-assisted suicide.

U.S. District Judge Robert Jones scolded Attorney General John Ashcroft, 
saying the federal government was attempting to usurp the rights of a state 
when the Justice Department announced its intent to prosecute doctors who 
prescribe lethal doses of drugs to their terminally ill and dying patients.

"The citizens of Oregon, through their democratic initiative process, have 
chosen to resolve the moral, legal and ethical debate on physician-assisted 
suicide for themselves by voting -- not once, but twice -- in favor of the 
Oregon act," Jones wrote in his order.

Jones said Ashcroft attempted to "stifle an ongoing, earnest and profound 
debate in the various states concerning physician-assisted suicide," and 
that "with no advance warning ... fired the first shot in the battle 
between the state of Oregon and the federal government."

Oregon is the first and only state to legalize physician-assisted suicide 
- -- an immensely controversial practice that raises ethical, medical and 
religious questions about the appropriate role for doctors in hastening or 
forbidding what advocates call "an early exit." Wednesday's decision was a 
clear victory for advocates of allowing doctors to prescribe drugs to 
hasten an inevitable death, but this will not end the debate in the courts, 
in Washington and in hospital corridors.

The Justice Department is considering an appeal, said Robert McCallum, an 
assistant attorney general. It would be heard by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court 
in San Francisco, and the process would likely take about 18 months. 
Meanwhile, the Oregon law remains in force, and other states are 
considering similar measures.

N.C. Sen. Jim Forrester, a Gaston County Republican and a physician, 
co-sponsored a bill last year that would make physician-assisted suicide a 
Class D felony. The bill remains in committee.

"It was kind of brushed aside," Forrester said. He said he's "not 
optimistic" the bill will be taken up in the session that begins next 
month. No legislation is pending in North Carolina to make 
physician-assisted suicide legal.

Andy Watry, executive director of the N.C. Medical Board that regulates 
doctors, said it's an extremely difficult issue for doctors and for the 
board that regulates them, he said.

"It's a tough place to be, but the physicians do need to take appropriate 
care of those people. It's unacceptable to have people at that stage of 
life suffer needlessly. There's a real balancing act from an enforcement 
standpoint," Watry said.

The N.C. Medical Society opposes physician-assisted suicide but has not 
taken a stand on whether it ought to be a crime.

Oregon voters first approved the Death With Dignity Act in 1994, and then 
again three years later after a failed legal challenge.

Under that law, a patient who seeks a prescription for lethal drugs must be 
shown to be mentally competent and must have, in the opinion of two 
doctors, less than six months to live.

While doctors prescribe the powerful sedatives or narcotics, they are not 
allowed to actually administer them to cause death. If the patient is 
incapable of taking the drugs without aid, a friend or relative may help.

In the past four years, some 91 people in Oregon have chosen to end their 
lives with the help of their physicians, according to records kept by the 

"The system has worked in Oregon," said Kathryn Tucker, one of the 
attorneys who defended the law in court and the director of legal affairs 
for the group Compassion in Dying Federation.

Opponents of physician-assisted suicide, however, decried the court action.

Burke Balch, a director of the National Right to Life Committee, said "the 
American people do not want their federal government to facilitate 
euthanasia." Balch said he was confident the decision would be reversed on 

Jan LaRue, a director of the Family Research Council, said, "medicine by 
definition is the art of treating and curing. Drugs are for curing, not 

During the Clinton administration, then-Attorney General Janet Reno 
concluded the federal government could not bar Oregon doctors from 
prescribing drugs to hasten death.

But in November, Ashcroft ordered Drug Enforcement Administration agents to 
pursue cases against such doctors, arguing that the lethal prescriptions 
served no "legitimate medical purpose" and violated the federal Controlled 
Substances Act, whose primary purpose is to regulate drugs that can be 
abused, from marijuana to prescription pain killers.

Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers immediately went to court and 
challenged the so-called "Ashcroft directive," and Jones first issued a 
temporary restraining order against Ashcroft in November. On Wednesday, 
Jones ruled again for the state, blocking the federal government from 
pursuing Oregon doctors.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens