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U.S. Cannot Block Oregon Suicide Law, Judge Rules

April 18, 2002|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORTLAND, Ore. — A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft overstepped his authority in attempting to sanction doctors who prescribe lethal drugs under Oregon's landmark assisted-suicide law.

In an opinion that upheld the state's case on every point, U.S. District Judge Robert Jones issued a permanent injunction shielding the statute and said Congress never intended the attorney general to decide what constitutes "legitimate medical practice" in individual states.

"To allow an attorney general--an appointed executive whose tenure depends entirely on whatever administration occupies the White House--to determine the legitimacy of a particular medical practice . . . would be unprecedented and extraordinary," the judge wrote.

Jones went a step further, accusing congressional opponents of going to the Bush administration for help when they failed to win support in Congress for a ban on physician-assisted suicide. "Certain congressional leaders made a good-faith effort to get through the administrative door what they could not get through the congressional door, seeking refuge with the newly appointed attorney general, whose ideology matched their views, and this is precisely what occurred."

Ashcroft's Nov. 6 directive, which found doctors who prescribe drugs to hasten the death of terminally ill patients in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act, "is not entitled to deference under any standard, and is invalid," Jones said.

"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."

The Justice Department stood behind its decision, saying it is convinced that a ban on the use of federally controlled drugs to assist in suicides is the "correct" policy. Although the department said it is still reviewing the decision, sources familiar with the case said a decision to appeal already has been made.

"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 them," Assistant Atty. Gen. Robert McCallum said in a statement Wednesday. "Doctors should not use controlled substances to assist suicide. Instead, they should be encouraged to use them for pain control, which is one of the most important positive alternatives to suicide."

Ashcroft said, "We'll make decisions about what our response is when we have an opportunity to digest the opinion."

Proponents of the Oregon law said the ruling is so narrow that it almost certainly will withstand an appeal. It never addressed questions of whether there is a constitutional right to assisted suicide but instead focused squarely on whether the federal law that regulates drug abuse can be applied to the assisted-suicide statute.

Under Ashcroft's directive, doctors who prescribed fatal doses for their patients stood to have their licenses revoked, based on the attorney general's finding that assisted suicide does not fall within the scope of "legitimate medical practice" covered in the statute for federally registered drugs.

"The ruling today respects and secures the right of dying Oregonians to make their own decisions," said Estelle Rogers, executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center, which has been a strong proponent of the Oregon law. "Secondly, today's ruling also protects the ability of physicians nationwide to provide adequate and appropriate pain care to their terminally ill patients, without fear that the [Drug Enforcement Administration] will second-guess their intent and punish them."

It was on that issue that the California Medical Assn. filed a friend-of-the-court brief, and CMA President John Whitelaw, a Sacramento physician, applauded the court's ruling. "While CMA does not support physician-assisted suicide, we feel that this directive by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft would grossly interfere in the doctor-patient relationship and would unnecessarily interfere with patients' ability to receive adequate pain relief during end-of-life care," Whitelaw said.

But opponents said the ruling blocked the federal government's legitimate attempt to prevent abuses in the care of the terminally ill. They have expressed fears that assisted suicide will be used by patients who are depressed or who have become a burden to their families.

"The opponents of physician-assisted suicide continue to be concerned that this right to die, no matter how well intentioned or well conceived, will over time become the duty to die," said Portland lawyer Kelly Clark, representing Oregon Right to Life. "And as time goes on, that duty will disproportionately fall on the poor and the dispossessed, and my clients are not going to stand by and see that kind of cultural and social suicide without trying to stop it."

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