Posted 10:30 p.m. Nov. 19
By Patrick W. Higgins
U-WIRE Washington Bureau
Attorney General John Ashcroft thwarted Oregon’s assisted suicide law last week by empowering federal agents to investigate and punish doctors who prescribe lethal medications for the purpose of suicide.
The decision overrides a 1998 order from former Attorney General Janet Reno which protected Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, a law allowing physicians in Oregon to provide but not administer lethal drugs to terminally ill patients with less than six months to live.
Ashcroft based his ruling on his conservative interpretation of the 1970 federal Controlled Substances Act, a Supreme Court decision in 1997 which stated that the Constitution did not guarantee Americans the right to commit suicide, and a recent Supreme Court decision which failed to make an exception to federal law for the medical use of certain controlled substances including marijuana.
The decision, presented to Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson in a memo last week, has instigated a fierce resistance from the people of Oregon who voted in 1994 and again in 1997 in favor of the Death with Dignity Act.
“They’ve tossed the ballots of Oregon voters in the trash can,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told The New York Times. “They’re frustrated by the inconvenience of the democratic process.”
Oregon passed the law in 1997, becoming the only state to support assisted suicide. Since that time, 70 people have killed themselves via a lethal prescription provided by their attending physician.
Until last week, Oregon was the only state where DEA agents were barred from investigating physicians suspected of assisted suicide.
The ruling does not allow for criminal prosecution of Oregon doctors who are found in violation, yet it does call for the revocation of their medical licenses.
According to Ashcroft, suicide is not a “legitimate medical purpose” for handing out or prescribing drugs, an opinion which prompted Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers to file a lawsuit in federal court demanding protection of Oregon’s laws and physicians from DEA investigations.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones complied with Mr. Myers request and granted a temporary restraining order against Attorney General Ashcroft’s order.
“There is no showing that the U.S. would be irreparably impaired by a temporary stay of the attorney general’s action,” Jones said in his ruling.
Critics of the decision fear nationwide ramifications if the Justice Department decree is upheld by the courts, a move that would allow DEA agents to question physician prescriptions for the severe pains associated with diseases such as AIDS and cancer.
Many civil liberty groups believe that this latest action by the Department of Justice will make doctors hesitant about prescribing common pain killers with DEA agents looking over their shoulders.
Attorney General Ashcroft, with the support of many conservative and pro-life groups, refuted this concern by saying that DEA agents can make “important medical, ethical and legal distinctions between intentionally causing a patient’s death and providing sufficient dosages of pain medication necessary to eliminate or alleviate pain.”
Observers said the ruling could raise new constitutional questions.
“The great irony of this is that we are dealing both with an administration and ultimately a Supreme Court who purport to place great value on state sovereignty and states exercising control over the everyday lives of their people instead of having the federal government intrude,” James O’ Fallon, a constitutional law professor at the University of Oregon told The Associated Press.