Ruling upholds Oregon law permitting assisted suicide, protecting state power over medical care
The Ninth Circuit federal appeals court upheld the only law in the nation that authorizes doctors to assist terminally ill patients to end their lives, in a landmark directive for state control over medical care.
Oregon's Death With Dignity Act came about from a 1994 voter initiative. Doctors may prescribe adults with incurable diseases who are likely to die in six months, but not administer them. About 30 people a year have ended their lives under the law since it became effective in 1997, according to state health records.
In 1997, Attorney General John Ashcroft, then a United States senator from Missouri, urged Attorney General Janet Reno to declare that physician-assisted suicide violated federal law. She declined. When Ashcroft became attorney general in 2001, he reversed Reno's position. He issued a directive saying that doctors who prescribe such drugs could face federal sanctions and prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act.
A doctor, a pharmacist, several terminally ill patients and the State of Oregon challenged Ashcroft's directive in 2001. The three-judge panel last week said the Justice Department did not have this power.
"The principle that state governments bear the primary responsibility for evaluating physician-assisted suicide follows from our concept of federalism, which requires that state lawmakers, not the federal government, are the primary regulators of professional medical conduct," Judge Richard C. Tallman wrote.