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Appeals court rejects rehearing request on assisted suicide

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has rebuffed the Justice Department’s request for reconsideration of the court’s May decision blocking a federal ban on the use of drugs to aid patients in committing suicide in Oregon.

The appeals court announced its decision Aug. 16, saying no judge had “requested a vote on whether to rehear the matter,” The Salem (Ore.) Statesman Journal reported. The Justice Department had urged the Ninth Circuit to rehear the case as an 11-member body. That request came after a three-judge panel voted 2-1 to uphold a federal judge’s injunction blocking enforcement of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s 2001 order that barred the use of federally regulated drugs for the purpose of assisting patients in committing suicide.

The Justice Department’s only judicial recourse is to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

In a November 2001 directive, Ashcroft declared the use of drugs regulated by the federal Controlled Substances Act in assisted suicide is not allowed. While his ruling did not overturn Oregon law, it meant physicians who prescribe or pharmacists who distribute federally controlled substances to aid in suicide may have their licenses to prescribe and dispense such drugs rescinded.

The Ninth Circuit panel ruled Ashcroft exceeded congressional authority and violated the Controlled Substances Act.

The controversy over the use of federally controlled drugs in assisted suicides began in 1997 when Oregon voters reaffirmed an earlier approved initiative that had been blocked in the courts. The Death With Dignity Act made it legal for a person to request a prescription for drugs to take his life when he is judged by two doctors to have less than six months to live.

Shortly thereafter, Thomas Constantine, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency at the time, announced the prescription of federally regulated drugs for suicide would be considered a violation of the Controlled Substances Act.

In June 1998, however, then-Attorney General Janet Reno overruled Constantine, saying the law does not permit the federal government to take action against physicians who prescribe medication for terminally ill patients in order for them to commit suicide. Opponents of assisted suicide inside and outside Congress highly criticized Reno’s decision at the time, and Ashcroft reversed her ruling after he took office.

In 2003, 42 people committed suicide in Oregon using drugs prescribed by doctors, according to the state’s report. That is the highest annual total since assisted suicide was legalized. A total of 171 persons have died by assisted suicide in Oregon, which is the only state that has legalized the practice.

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