SAN FRANCISCO — The federal government resumed its bid to ban Oregon doctors from helping terminally ill patients commit suicide, filing papers Monday with an appeals court in an effort to strike down the only such law in the nation.
Attorney General John Ashcroft is seeking to sanction and perhaps hold Oregon doctors criminally liable if they prescribe lethal doses of medication, as the voter-approved Death With Dignity Act allows.
“The attorney general has permissibly concluded that suicide is not a legitimate medical purpose,” Justice Department attorney Jonathan H. Levy wrote in the appeal filed at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A federal judge in Portland, Ore., blocked the Justice Department from punishing Oregon doctors — such as stripping them of their ability to dispense medication if they prescribe lethal doses of medication to the terminally ill.
The case is a classic states’ rights battle, with Oregon defending its assisted-suicide law against attacks from the Justice Department.
In a sharp rebuke to Ashcroft, U.S. District Judge Robert Jones ruled in April that the Controlled Substances Act — the federal law declaring what drugs doctors may prescribe — does not give the federal government the power to say what is a legitimate medical practice.
Ashcroft first declared the federal government had such power on Nov. 6, 2001, and the government reiterated that point Monday, arguing the act “prohibits physicians from prescribing controlled substances except for legitimate medical purposes.”