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Oregon doctors caught in middle of assisted suicide law fight

PORTLAND, Ore. (BP)–A federal judge’s ruling will allow Oregon’s law allowing physician-assisted suicide to remain in effect while the state prepares its case against the U.S. government.

Oregon officials are aiming to permanently block a directive from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft that effectively nullifies the law by barring doctors from prescribing lethal doses of federally controlled drugs.

The attorney general’s Nov. 6 order said that “prescribing, dispensing, or administering federally controlled substances to assist suicide violates” the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, which was crafted by Congress to combat drug abuse.

Doctors who violate that prohibition will lose their licenses to prescribe federally controlled drugs, Ashcroft said.

On Nov. 20, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones extended for up to five months a Nov. 8 temporary restraining order that had set aside Ashcroft’s directive, CNSNews.com reported.

Jones said that under the extended restraining order, physicians who prescribe lethal drugs according to the state law should not fear losing their licenses.

Legal analysts and activists on both sides of the issue warn, however, that if the U.S. government prevails, the attorney general could enforce the federal law from the date of his opinion.

“There is a gray cloud cast over the law by the attorney general, and [Jones’] ruling does not remove that,” said Ryan Ross, a spokesman for the Hemlock Society, a Denver-based advocate of assisted suicide. “Unfortunately, as much as it pains me to say this, if I were a physician in Oregon I would be very, very, very careful.”

Ross said he believes this cautious approach by doctors means that “some terminally ill people in Oregon are not going to get the kind of care that they deserve and are entitled to under the Oregon law. Doctors are just going to be too nervous to do things they were willing to do before November the 6th.”

Oregon became the only state to allow physician-assisted suicide when it implemented the Death with Dignity Act in 1998. Under certain circumstances doctors can provide, but not administer, a lethal dose of drugs to a state resident who is terminally ill.

Wesley J. Smith, an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, warns, “Physicians who would lethally prescribe in Oregon should take little comfort from this ruling.”

Jones’ ruling does not say that Ashcroft’s opinion is wrong, Smith explained. “It merely says that at this point he is not able to pull licenses. That doesn’t mean he won’t be able to [do so] once that injunction is lifted.”

Smith is convinced that the U.S. government will prevail, although it may require a Supreme Court ruling.

During the Nov. 20 hearing before Jones, the Justice Department argued that Ashcroft’s predecessor Janet Reno made an unwarranted exception to federal law by allowing Oregon’s doctors to prescribe lethal drugs.

Smith insisted, “All John Ashcroft is doing is restoring uniformity to enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act to all 50 states, based on the recommendation of the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] back when Janet Reno was in power and on a more recent United States Supreme Court decision.”

Ashcroft based his directive on United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, in which the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that while California was free to legalize medical marijuana, the state could not prevent the U.S. government from enforcing federal law banning the use of marijuana for any purpose.

In the Nov. hearing before Jones, the state of Oregon argued that by applying the Controlled Substances Act to assisted suicide, Ashcroft is interpreting the act in a way that Congress never intended.

Estelle Rogers, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center in Washington, D.C., called Jones’ ruling a “mixed bag” for supporters of the assisted suicide law.

“I think everybody in Oregon is quite relieved that the Oregon law is allowed to operate until the court rules further, so that people who are already in the process of using the law, of whom there are several, can go ahead,” she said. “But I still think that as a practical matter, many doctors will be very cautious and will worry about starting the process with anybody new.”

Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life, said her group was “disappointed, but not surprised” by Jones’ decision.

“That was consistent with his first ruling and his desire to carefully examine both sides of the argument before he makes a permanent decision,” Atteberry said. “We expect in the final analysis to prevail with upholding John Ashcroft’s determination that these drugs cannot be used to kill people.”

Atteberry said activists on both sides of the issue have been very vocal but the general public is not as concerned as they were when Oregonians voted on the Death With Dignity Act in 1994 and — after court challenges — in 1997.

“I guess they are living and dying with it peacefully,” she said.
Moore is a correspondent with www.CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Art Moore