Ashcroft Rebuked in Oregon Court

Published June 1, 2002

According to U.S. District Judge Robert Jones of Portland, Oregon, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is not the nation’s health care cop. In an April 17 decision, Jones upheld Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law, ruling the Justice Department “overstepped its authority” in attempting to nullify the law.

Jones issued a permanent injunction preventing the federal government from interfering with the statute. The ruling is critical of Ashcroft, whose November 2001 directive seeking to nullify the law began the legal dispute.

Jones wrote, “To allow an attorney general to determine the legitimacy of a particular medical practice … would be unprecedented and extraordinary.” The federal government, Jones said, is not authorized to “act as a national medical board” and regulate how doctors treat patients.

Jones criticized Ashcroft for his attempts to “stifle an ongoing, earnest, and profound debate in the various states concerning physician-assisted suicide.”

Death with Dignity

At issue is Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, approved by voters in 1994 and reaffirmed in 1997. The law—the only one of its kind in the nation—allows physicians to prescribe, but not to administer, a lethal dose of drugs to individuals with less than six months to live. Two doctors must confirm the prognosis.

Between 1997, when the law took effect, and 2001, 141 lethal prescriptions were issued, resulting in 91 physician-assisted suicides, according to state Department of Health records.

Last November, Ashcroft reversed a 1998 Justice Department decision not to pursue legal action against Oregon doctors who complied with the law. He issued a directive saying the prescription of lethal doses of medication served no “legitimate medical purpose,” and therefore violated the federal Controlled Substances Act. Ashcroft ordered the Drug Enforcement Administration to target the prescription licenses of doctors who prescribed lethal doses, a move that would have had the effect of nullifying the Oregon law.

Oregon state government officials filed suit, seeking an injunction against the federal government, which Jones granted on April 17.

Plan to Appeal

Assistant Attorney General Robert McCallum said the department remains convinced federal law prohibits the use of controlled substances for use in assisted suicides. “A just and caring society should do its best to assist in coping with the problems that afflict the terminally ill. It should not abandon or assist in killing them,” McCallum told USA Today.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, Justice Department officials said they were likely to appeal the decision. The Oregon law will stand unless a still higher court overturns Jones’ ruling.

Supporters of physician-assisted suicide applauded the decision. “The ruling respects and secures the right of dying Oregonians to make their own decisions,” said Estelle Rogers, executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center. The ruling, according to Rogers, “protects the ability of physicians nationwide to provide adequate and appropriate pain care to their terminally ill patients, without fear that the DEA will second-guess their intent and punish them.”

Because Jones did not address whether there is a constitutional right to assisted suicide, supporters say the ruling will almost certainly withstand appeal.

Opponents of physician-assisted suicide disagreed. James Bopp Jr., an attorney for the National Right to Life Committee, said Jones’ ruling was not consistent with a Supreme Court decision last year finding sections of California’s medical marijuana law violated the Controlled Substances Act. Bopp told the Los Angeles Times, “If using marijuana for glaucoma is not permitted by the Supreme Court, under the pretext of medical care, I don’t see how killing patients can be justified.”

Dr. Greg Hamilton, a spokesperson for Physicians for Compassionate Care, echoed Bopp’s sentiments. “Assisted suicide is not a legitimate medical purpose in Oregon or anywhere in the world,” he said.