Case against assisted-suicide law continues

One supporter of the Oregon act says the federal government's appeal was "greeted with a shrug" by most in the state.

By Andis Robeznieks — Posted Aug. 2, 2004

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According to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, it didn't need "unmistakably clear" authorization to use the Controlled Substances Act to stop physician-assisted suicides in Oregon because, while "direct control of medical practice" may be a job for the states, federal regulation of controlled substances "does not constitute direct control."

That's one of the arguments raised in the department's July 12 petition for an 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear State of Oregon v. Ashcroft.

A three-judge panel of 9th Circuit justices ruled 2-1 on May 26 that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft did not have the authority to revoke the licenses to prescribe controlled substances of doctors who wrote lethal prescriptions under Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, which has allowed 171 assisted suicides in the past six years.

The Justice Dept. had three options: ask for a larger panel to rehear the case, accept the May 26 decision, or appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Spokesman Blain Rethmeier said the department doesn't discuss how it chooses which option to take.

Assisted-suicide opponent N. Gregory Hamilton, MD, with Physicians for Compassionate Care, hailed the decision to appeal. "This isn't about the federal government overturning Oregon's law, it's about the federal government continuing to enforce its own laws," the Portland psychiatrist said.

But Death With Dignity supporter Peter Rasmussen, MD, said this news was "greeted with a shrug" by most of the state. "The availability of the law has been woven into the fabric of medicine in Oregon, but it happens so seldom that most physicians don't have any experience with it," the Salem oncologist said.

"I'm just really glad that this is going through a public, legal process and I think, in the long run, that's how issues of civil liberties have to be decided -- through discussion, laws and the courts -- and not by the old wink and nod."

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External links

U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion State of Oregon v. Ashcroft, in pdf (link)

AMA policy on physician-assisted suicide (link)

Oregon Dept. of Human Services reports on its Death With Dignity Act (link)

Death With Dignity National Center on the Dept. of Justice appeal in State of Oregon v. Ashcroft (link)

Affidavit of Peter A. Rasmussen, MD, in support of plaintfiffs-intervenors in State of Oregon v. Ashcroft, in pdf (link)

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