Feds petition Supreme Court to review assisted-suicide case

NEWS IN BRIEF — Posted Dec. 6, 2004

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The federal government filed a petition last month requesting that the U.S. Supreme Court review a May 26 appellate court decision which ruled that Attorney General John Ashcroft did not have the authority to revoke the licenses to prescribe controlled substances of physicians who wrote lethal prescriptions allowed by Oregon's Death With Dignity Act.

The petition notes that the federal Controlled Substances Act authorizes the attorney general to revoke the registration of a physician if it's determined that the registration is "inconsistent with public interest." It also states that the appellate court decision subordinates the attorney general's authority regarding permissible uses of controlled substances to the views held by the 50 individual states.

In its decision, a three-judge panel for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court stated that it was not taking a position on assisted suicide itself. Instead, the question was who has the authority to decide what constitutes "legitimate medical practice." The judges ruled that states were the primary regulators of professional conduct, not the U.S. attorney general.

The Death With Dignity Act allows Oregon physicians to write -- but not administer -- lethal prescriptions for terminally ill and mentally competent Oregon adult residents. Between 1998 and 2003, 171 people used the law to hasten their deaths.

The AMA opposes physician-assisted suicide, and its policy states that assisted suicide is "fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as healer."

Note: This item originally appeared at

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