Assisted suicide law reprieved in Oregon

By William McCall, The Associated Press
Wednesday November 21, 2001

PORTLAND, Ore. — A federal judge on Tuesday extended a court order that has temporarily blocked a move by the U.S. government to dismantle an Oregon law allowing physician-assisted suicide, the only one of its kind in the nation. 

U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones gave the state of Oregon and the U.S. Justice Department up to five months to prepare their arguments. 

The state of Oregon has asked Jones to permanently block a Nov. 6 order by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft that effectively blocked the physician-assisted suicide law by prohibiting doctors from prescribing lethal doses of federally controlled drugs to terminally ill patients. 

Jones on Tuesday extended a Nov. 8 temporary restraining order that has prevented the federal government from taking action against doctors who help patients commit suicide under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law. 

Jones emphasized that the Oregon law remains in effect pending his final ruling. 

Under Jones’ schedule for hearing arguments in the case, he will issue a ruling on Ashcroft’s order within five months. 

Jones stressed that his order “nullifies giving any legal effect to the directive issued by John Ashcroft” — in other words, doctors should have not fear of legal repercussions if they prescribe the lethal doses to terminally ill patients. 

During a four-hour court hearing, the Justice Department repeated its arguments that Oregon does not have the right to be an exception to drug laws. 

But Steve Bushong, an Oregon assistant attorney general, argued that Ashcroft’s order exceeded powers given to him by Congress. 

In his Nov. 6 directive, Ashcroft said “prescribing, dispensing, or administering federally controlled substances to assist suicide violates the CSA,” the Controlled Substances Act, passed by Congress in 1970 as part of the nation’s war on drug use. 

Bushong argued that by applying the CSA to physicians who help terminally ill patients hasten their deaths, Ashcroft was interpreting the CSA in a way that was not intended by Congress. 

“The congressional will expressed in the Controlled Substances Act has been violated by the action taken by the agency here,” said Bushong, referring to the U.S. Justice Department. 

Many Oregon doctors have been reluctant to assist with suicides because of Ashcroft’s order, said Brad Wright, who is with Compassion in Dying, a group that supports physician-assisted suicide. 

Advocates of Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law contend that Ashcroft’s order, if allowed to stand, will prompt doctors nationwide to cut back on the amount of federally controlled pain medication they provide terminally ill patients out of fear their licenses to issue those drugs could be revoked. 

Supporters of Oregon’s law have vowed to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. 

At least 70 people have used the law since it took effect, according to the state’s Health Services office. All have done so with a federally controlled drug. 

Included in the documents filed in court are statements by four terminally ill patients who are pleading that people like themselves be permitted to end their suffering on their own terms. The four have joined the state of Oregon in the lawsuit against Ashcroft. 

One plaintiff, 68-year-old Karl Stansell, has terminal throat cancer. He’s received chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and is being fed through a feeding tube. His doctors have told him he has less than six months to live as the cancer spreads through his body. 

“Eventually I will be unable to swallow anything and will die in agony,” Stansell said. 

Under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law, doctors may provide — but not administer — a lethal prescription to terminally ill adult state residents. It requires that two doctors agree the patient has less than six months to live, has voluntarily chosen to die and is capable of making health care decisions. 

The measure was approved by voters in 1994, survived legal challenges, and was re-approved in a 1997 referendum by a wide margin. 

Ashcroft’s order reversed a 1998 order by his predecessor, Janet Reno. The state accused him of stripping Oregon’s right to govern the practice of medicine.