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Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS)

Developments in other U.S. states

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California, Oregon and Washington state activity are described in separate essays

Recent developments

bullet2000-JAN-11: CA: The California legislature was scheduled to consider a "Death with Dignity Act." The law in California currently allows adults of sound mind to "execute a declaration governing the withholding or withdrawal of life sustaining treatment." This law would go further by allowing a person under severely restricted circumstances to obtain "medication for the purpose of ending his or her life in a humane and dignified manner." Doctors would have immunity from civil or criminal actions as long as they participated "in good faith compliance with the act." The act was rejected on FEB-3.

bullet2001-NOV-5: USA: Attorney General attempts to override Oregon's law: Attorney General John Ashcroft wrote a letter to Asa Hutchinson, chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration. He declared that assisting a terminally ill patient to commit suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" for federally controlled drugs. He said that any physicians who use drugs to help patients die face suspension or revocation of their licenses to prescribe federally controlled drugs. A court injunction was obtained to block Ashcroft's initiative. More details.

bullet2002-MAY: HI: Physician assisted suicide bill rejected: The "Death with Dignity Act," HB 2487, was passed by a House committee in late 2002-FEB. It would allow "a terminally ill, competent adult to obtain a prescription for medication to end his or her life in a humane and dignified manner through a self-administered oral lethal dose. [The bill] Prohibits mercy killings, lethal injections, and active euthanasia." Senator David Matsuura the chairperson of the Senate Health Committee, personally disagreed with the bill, and refused to allow it to be voted upon by his committee. In a surprise move, the Senate overruled Matsuura by voting to pull the bill out of the Health Committee. HB 2487 was debated on 2002-MAY-2, but was defeated by one vote on the next day. More details.

bullet2002-JUN-30: USA: NRLC expands mandate: The National Right to Life Committee was organized in 1972 to restrict or eliminate abortion access.  They decided at their Pittsburgh PA convention, (held JUN-27 to 29), to expand their mandate to include seeking bans on human embryo stem-cell research, physician-assisted suicide, and human cloning. 1
bullet2004-MAY: Oregon: Ashcroft loses court case: U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft had challenged Oregon's assisted suicide law in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He argued that physicians who prescribed lethal medications were in contravention of the federal Controlled Substances Act. By a vote of 2 to 1, a three judge panel disagreed, ruling that the regulation of medical practice is a state matter and is outside the jurisdiction of the federal government.

bullet2004-JUL-20: Ashcroft asks for review: John Ashcroft asked that the May decision of its three-judge panel be reviewed by at least 11 judges. His request was denied in August when most of the 25 judges on the court voted against a review.

bullet2004-AUG: Oregon: Results of pain study: Researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) conducted a survey of the level of pain among 1,724 patients in Oregon, as subjectively perceived by family members of the patient, not the patients themselves. They found that since assisted suicide became available, pain has apparently increased. Conservative Christian and secular media disagree about the cause. More details.

bullet2004-NOV-09: Oregon: Ashcroft requests appeal on Oregon's assisted suicide law: U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled that the federal government cannot regulate medical practice by preventing physicians from prescribing lethal medication to persons who want to commit suicide under Oregon's assisted suicide law.

bullet2005-MAR-30: Vermont: Physician assisted suicide bill proposed: A bill was introduced into the Vermont legislature during 2004 to legalize physician assisted suicide. It was patterned after the Oregon law which had been in place for six years. The bill was not acted upon. It was reintroduced in 2005-FEB and has a possibility of being examined by legislative committees during 2005-APR. A Xogby poll conducted in 2004-DEC showed that 78% of 500 randomly selected adults said that they would support a bill to allow terminally ill patients to get medication from their physicians to hasten death. The bill is opposed by an group of physicians and religious organizations called the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare. They have put forward the slippery slope argument: they are concerned that the bill could lead to abuses, and eventually to mandatory euthanasia. The Alliance's president, Dr. Robert Orr, said: "The biggest concern is the expansion of the criteria and the abuses that have been increasingly evident" in the Netherlands, where euthanasia is legal. The bill is being promoted by Death With Dignity Vermont. One of its founders is Dick Walters, 79, a retired merchandise manager for retail department store chains, who was troubled during the death of his father. He said: "He asked me to help him, and there was nothing I could do. It frustrated me." He was jointed by Dr. Richard Austin, 82 who said: "I've seen some of my friends here die rotten deaths." He doesn't want to die a similar death. They were joined by another doctor, Carmer Van Buren, 77 who was initially troubled by the concept of helping a patient die. But he concluded that hastening death for the terminally ill "is not suicide."

Nancy Dubler, a professor of bioethics at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York said that without a law: "people of a certain education and class and profession will have access to it when others will not. [Oregon] "has demonstrated that it's socially and morally responsible, socially and morally possible to have a physician-assisted suicide program." However, she has reservations. She added: "I fear if you take a program like Oregon's to a place like California or New York you may get less admirable results." 2
 
bullet2005-OCT-05: Oregon: U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on Oregon's law: Oral arguments will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in its first assisted suicide case since 1997 -- Gonzales v. Oregon. In 2001, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a directive stating that: "Assisting suicide is not a 'legitimate medical purpose'....and that prescribing, dispensing, or administering federally controlled substances to assist suicide violates the federal Controlled Substances Act." So far, courts have decided that the federal act does not restrict the behavior of physicians. 3

The Family Research Council, a fundamentalist Christian advocacy group, filed an Amicus Curia brief in favor of preventing Oregon doctors from engaging in physician assisted suicide. 4

bullet2006-JAN-17: U.S.: Supreme Court upholds Oregon's law: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 6 to 3 vote that in 2001 John Ashcroft had incorrectly interpreted the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 -- a law originally intended to fight illegal drugs. Justice Anthony Kennedy issued the ruling for the majority. He wrote, in part: "It is difficult to defend the attorney general's declaration that the statue impliedly criminalizes physicians-assisted suicide." As expected, the strict constructionist judges on the Court -- Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice John Roberts -- dissented.

Reuters News Agency stated:

"White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the Justice Department was reviewing the ruling. Both sides predicted the decision likely will lead to more states adopting assisted suicide laws." 5

bullet

2007 to now: With the U.S. Supreme Court decision of 2006, it would seem that states are now free to pass death-with-dignity laws if they so wish. However, legislators have unsuccessfully tried to pass such laws since early in the 20th century. Of the the three states that allow PAS, two (Oregon and Washington) were as a result of public Intiiatives and one resulted from a court decision. To our knowledge, no governor in the U.S. has ever signed a PAS enabling bill into law.

Because of lack of resources we will not report on state PAS activities in the future, whether public Initiatives
or legislative bills, unless they are successful or notable for some other reason. If you wish to access information of this type, we suggest that you go to:

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References used:

  1. Jim Rudd, "National Right to Life's Deception," at: http://covenantnews.com/rudd020701.htm
  2. Joh Schwartz & James Estrin, "In Vermont, a Bid to Legalize Physician-Assisted Suicide," Gadsden Times, (Alabama), 2005-MAR-30, at: http://www.gadsdentimes.com/
  3. "U.S. Supreme Court begins hearings in assisted suicide case tomorrow," Life Site News mailing, 2005-OCT-04. See http://www.LifeSiteNews.com
  4. "Amicus Brief Filed in Oregon Assisted Suicide Case: Gonzales v. Oregon," Family Research Council, at: http://www.frc.org/
  5. James Vicini, "Court rules govt. can't stop Oregon suicide law," Reuters News Agency, 2005-JAN-17, at: http://today.reuters.com/
  6. "A Careful Reading of State Reports Indicates Oregon and Washington Laws are Safe and Rarely Used," Death with Dignity National Center, 2010-Spring, at: http://www.deathwithdignity.org/

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Copyright 2000 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated 2010-JUL-04

Author: Bruce A Robinson
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