High court allows physician-assisted suicide
Physician-assisted suicide is legal in Oregon.Skip to next paragraph
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So declared the US Supreme Court on Tuesday in deciding that Oregon's Death With Dignity Act is not barred by the Bush administration's interpretation of federal drug laws.
The 6-to-3 ruling allows Oregon residents who are mentally competent and diagnosed as terminally ill to continue to have the option of asking a physician to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs. More than 200 Oregon residents have relied on the law to end their lives since 1997, when the measure took effect.
The high court ruling also opens the door for other states considering enacting similar assisted death laws, setting the stage for bitter fights ahead.
"We are very confident that a number of states throughout the country will now move forward in attempts to replicate Oregon's very specific law," says Robert Kenneth, spokesman for the Death With Dignity National Center. Both Vermont and California have bills pending in their legislatures, and Washington State is considering drafting a similar law.
Opponents of assisted-suicide say the high court ruling is unlikely to trigger a rush to adopt similar laws in other states.
"The movement has been moribund. They had been unable to move the agenda forward throughout the country like they thought they would, after Oregon legalized assisted suicide in 1994," says Wesley Smith of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted last November showed the public almost evenly divided on physician-assisted suicide, with 46 percent in favor of laws permitting it and 45 percent opposed. [Editor's note: The original version described the wrong findings from the Pew Research Center survey.]
In reaching its determination, the high court said former Attorney General John Ashcroft overstepped his authority in November 2001 when he rewrote regulations under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) making it illegal for Oregon doctors to prescribe drugs to help a patient die.
"The authority claimed by the attorney general is both beyond his expertise and incongruous with the statutory purposes and design," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority. "The idea that Congress gave the attorney general such broad and unusual authority through an implicit delegation in the [Controlled Substances Act's] registration provision is not sustainable."
Mr. Ashcroft said that federally controlled drugs could be prescribed only for a "legitimate medical purpose," and that helping someone to end his or her life was contrary to the healing mission of physicians.
Justice Antonin Scalia said in a dissent that Ashcroft's directive should be accorded deference by the courts and allowed to stand. He added that he found reasonable the former attorney general's conclusion that helping someone die was not a "legitimate medical purpose."
"Virtually every medical authority from Hippocrates to the current American Medical Association confirms that assisting suicide ... is not a 'legitimate' branch of that science and art," Justice Scalia wrote. "If the term 'legitimate medical purpose' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death."