Pubdate: Thu, 18 Apr 2002
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2002 The Washington Post Company
Author:  William Booth, Washington Post Staff Writer


Ashcroft Challenge Called Attempt to Usurp State Rights

A federal judge in Portland ruled today 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 D. Ashcroft, 
saying that 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 that 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 only state to have legalized 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." Today'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 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.

McCallum repeated the administration's contention that "assisting suicide 
is not medicine."

"Terminally ill patients are among the most vulnerable members of our 
society," he said. "Medical studies make clear that these individuals often 
suffer from undiagnosed depression and inadequately treated pain. 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 

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. Although doctors prescribe the 
powerful sedatives or narcotics, they are not allowed to 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, 91 people in Oregon have chosen to end their lives 
with the help of their physicians, according to records kept by the state.

"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.

Tucker said that the number of patients choosing suicide has been 
relatively low and that there have not been allegations of abuse or coercion.

Opponents of physician-assisted suicide 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, Attorney General Janet Reno concluded 
that 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. Ashcroft argued 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 "Ashcroft directive," and Jones issued a temporary 
restraining order against Ashcroft in November. Today, Jones ruled again 
for the state, blocking the federal government from pursuing Oregon doctors.

Jones said he was not required to rule on the practice of 
physician-assisted suicide, but a narrower point of law -- whether the 
federal government, through the Controlled Substances Act, can seek to bar 
physicians from writing prescriptions to assist in suicide.

Jones concluded that the Controlled Substances Act, as well as legislative 
history behind the act, did not support the Ashcroft directive. The federal 
government, Jones wrote, is not authorized "to act as a national medical 
board" and regulate how physicians treat their patients.

Steve Bushong, a deputy Oregon attorney general who has defended the state 
law, argued that Congress intended only to prevent illegal drug-trafficking 
by doctors under the Controlled Substances Act, and it left any decisions 
about medical practice up to the states.

Alan Bates, a physician and a member of the Oregon Legislature, said 
today's ruling "allows us to continue to practice medicine without fear of 
losing our licenses." He warned that "once you start telling physicians how 
to handle their patients, you've made a huge mistake."

Supporters of the Oregon law said a ruling in favor of Ashcroft could have 
had a chilling effect on the care of gravely ill patients because doctors 
might fear that prescribing too much pain medication could invite federal 

McCallum, the assistant attorney general, made clear that was not the 
intent of the Justice Department, saying that appropriate use of pain 
medications was "one of the most important positive alternatives to suicide."

Jones said he understood that society has not settled its mind on the 
question. "My task is not to criticize those who oppose the concept of 
assisted suicide for any reason," Jones wrote. "Many of our citizens, 
including the highest respected leaders of this country, oppose assisted 
suicide. But the 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."
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