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Reconsider assisted suicide ruling, Justice Dept. asks court

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Department of Justice has asked an appeals court to reconsider its May decision blocking a federal ban on the use of drugs to aid patients in committing suicide in Oregon.

The department urged the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals July 12 to rehear the case as an 11-member panel, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. If the appeals court rejects the request, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court will be the federal government’s final legal recourse.

A three-judge panel from the court had 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.

Oregon is the lone state that has legalized physician-assisted suicide.

In a November 2001 directive, Ashcroft declared that the use of drugs regulated by the Controlled Substances Act is not allowed in assisted suicide. 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federally controlled substances to aid in suicide may have their licenses to prescribe and dispense such drugs rescinded.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 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.

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