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Judge protects Oregon law legalizing assisted suicide

WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal judge acted April 17 to protect Oregon’s law permitting physician-assisted suicide.

Judge Robert Jones permanently blocked an order by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to bar the use of federally regulated drugs by doctors assisting patients in committing suicide. The Department of Justice said it is considering an appeal.

In his November directive, Ashcroft declared that the use of such drugs for assisted suicide is not permitted under the Controlled Substances Act. 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federally controlled substances to aid in suicide may have their licenses to prescribe and dispense such drugs rescinded.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 federal government does not have the right “to act as a national medical board,” Jones wrote in his ruling from district court in Oregon, according to The Washington Post. “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.”

Pro-life advocates denounced the decision.

“Once again, a federal judge has made a decision that defends death rather than life,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Assisted-suicide advocates applauded the ruling.

Estelle Rodgers, the executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center, said in a written statement her organization was “gratified and relieved that the people of Oregon will continue to have the humane option of hastened death” that has been available for four years under the state’s Death With Dignity Act.

Land said, “To say that allowing doctors to kill patients is death with dignity and that ‘hastened death’ is a ‘humane option’ shows the extent to which Ms. Rogers and all those who follow her moral compass have gone awry, as well as the extent to which our very language is being corrupted by the culture of death.”

Bioethics specialist Ben Mitchell called the ruling “another step down the slope to utter moral bankruptcy.”

“Oregon is showing the world what the erosion of moral medicine looks like,” said Mitchell, a consultant for the ERLC and an associate professor of bioethics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago. “In Oregon, doctors kill their patients. In moral medicine, doctors treat their patients’ pain and compassionate caregivers relieve patients’ suffering without killing them.”

Rep. Henry Hyde, R.-Ill., said the decision was “the worst kind of judicial policymaking.”

“Today’s ruling turns the constitutional system upside down and makes the government of Oregon the primary interpreter and administrator of a federal criminal law,” Hyde said in a written statement. “The United States Constitution requires the president, not the state of Oregon, to ‘take care that the laws are faithfully executed.'”

Ashcroft’s November order reversed a ruling by his predecessor, Janet Reno, that allowed the use of federally regulated drugs in assisted suicide. The state filed suit the next day to block implementation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency of Ashcroft’s ruling. Jones issued an order temporarily restraining the federal government.

The controversy over the use of federally controlled drugs in assisted suicides in Oregon began in 1997 when the state’s voters reaffirmed an earlier approved initiative that had been blocked in the courts. The Death With Dignity Act, which remains the only assisted-suicide law in the country, 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, DEA administrator 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, 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.

When he released his November directive, Ashcroft sought to assure doctors the ruling would not threaten their efforts to care for terminally ill patients. In a letter to the Oregon Medical Association, the attorney general said the state’s physicians “will have no reason to fear that prescription of controlled substances to control pain will lead to increased scrutiny by the DEA, even when high doses of painkilling drugs are necessary and even when dosages needed to control pain may increase the risk of death.”

While the American Medical Association opposes assisted suicide, it had expressed concern about doctors’ ability to use drugs to treat pain under Ashcroft’s order.

A total of 21 people committed suicide with a physician’s assistance in 2001, according to the latest report on Oregon’s law. It marked a decline from the 27 suicides reported each of the previous two years.

Of the 17 assisted-suicide victims in 2001 about whom such information was reported, only one was concerned about inadequate pain control. Sixteen feared losing their autonomy and 13 were concerned about a decrease in the ability to participate in activities that make life enjoyable. That information was based on interviews with doctors who assisted in the suicides.

The ERLC’s Land said the decision was part of a tragic two days for the country.

“In the last 48 hours, we have witnessed the tragic spectacle of the Supreme Court ruling that adults’ so-called right to produce and view virtual child pornography completely trumps society’s obligation and responsibility to protect the safety and welfare of children,” Land said. “When you combine that with a federal judge reasserting Oregon’s assisted-suicide law, hailed by supporters as protecting the ‘humane option of hastened death,’ and 161 congressional members elected by their constituents [voting] that a girl younger than 17 should be transported by an adult across a state line to kill her child without parental consent, a profoundly dire and disturbing portrait of American culture is revealed.

“When large chunks of a building come loose and fall into the street, it’s a tell-tale sign that the foundation and the building are in deep trouble,” Land said. “These three events within a two-day period represent huge chunks of the edifice that is America that have fallen and shattered as rubble in the street. All Americans who care for their country’s future should be gravely concerned. People of faith should call upon the nation to heed God’s advice: ‘If my people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from Heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.'”

The House of Representatives approved the Child Custody Protection Act April 17 in a 260-161 vote. A day earlier, the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the Child Pornography Prevention Act.