Ninth Circuit Denies Appeal to Oregon’s Suicide Law

SAN FRANCISCO—Oregon is the only state that has a physician-assisted suicide law and yesterday nothing has changed. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on May 26 that Attorney General John Ashcroft has no authority to stop Oregon doctors from assisting terminally ill patients commit suicide.

Ashcroft, representing the Bush administration, was seeking to block Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law, enacted in 1997, allowing physicians dispense lethal drugs to a patient who has demonstrated to at least two doctors he have no more than six months to live and has agreed with mental competence that he would administer the drugs to himself.

Physician-assisted suicide has no “legitimate medical purpose,” said Ashcroft, who has been campaigning since November 2001, when he was a U.S. senator. His directive would allow the Justice Department to strip physicians assisting in the dispensing of lethal drugs used to assist patients in committing suicide of their rights to prescribe medicine since physicians would be violating the “Controlled Substance Act”, which was designed to restrict narcotics trafficking and illegal diversion of drugs.

Jan LaRue, senior director of legal studies for Family Research Council, which has filed an amicus brief in the case of Oregon v. Ashcroft said in a statement, "Congress made its intent clear in the Controlled Substances Act. Drugs are regulated to 'maintain the health of the American people,'" said LaRue who also serves as Concerned Women for America’s Chief Counsel and Legal Studies Director. "The Attorney General acted within his authority when he reinstated the original DEA ruling which said that assisting suicide is not a 'legitimate medical purpose' for dispensing federally controlled substances.”

Judge Richard A. Tallman said Ashcroft “exceeded his authority under federal law” and called medical practices as being “entrusted to state lawmakers,” relying on a case where the Supreme Court ruled the issue of physician-assisted suicide should be left up to individual states.

However, the former president of Physicians for Compassionate Care explained how the ruling would encourage other states to excuse themselves from other federal laws.

"It's amazing that a federal court would allow any state to nullify federal regulatory authority and federal law," said Gregory Hamilton who is now a doctor in Portland, Oregon. "If Oregon is allowed to exempt itself from federal law about the misuse of controlled substances for the purposes of overdosing patients, what is to stop any state from exempting itself from other important federal regulations and laws?"

Executive Director of Oregon Right to Life, Gayle Atteberry, called the ruling a tragedy. Instead of giving hope to those who are terminally ill, the ruling would leave those eligible for the lethal drugs to be “abandoned to depression instead of receiving the help they need.”

A spokesman for the Justice Department, Charles Miller, said Wednesday that "we are reviewing the court's decision and no determination has been made as to what the government's next step will be."