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Physician assisted suicide (PAS)

Activity in Oregon: 2004 & 2005

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Circuit Court of Appeals ruling:

On 2004-MAY-26, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2 to 1 to uphold the Oregon lawsuit initiated in 2002. This blocked the attempt by the U.S. Justice Department to use the federal Controlled Substances Act to prevent doctors in the state from prescribing drugs to assist the suicide of their patients. Attorney General John Ashcroft (R) had ordered the Drug Enforcement Agency to prosecute doctors who followed the law by prescribing these drugs.

Judge Richard Tallman wrote the majority opinion, calling Ashcroft's action "unlawful and unenforceable." He wrote, in part:

"The Attorney-General's unilateral attempt to regulate...medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes with the democratic debate about physician-assisted suicide."

Dr. Gregory Hamilton heads Physicians for Compassionate Care, a conservative group which opposes the right of a terminally ill person in intractable pain from obtaining assistance from their physician to help them commit suicide. He commented

"The 9th Circuit Court got the states' rights issue exactly backwards. This isn't an example of the federal government intruding into the states. It's an example of the state, of a single state, imposing its will on the federal government and requiring [it] to rewrite rules, regulations and laws."

Richard Doerflinger, of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the court's decision:

"... turns federalism on its head...John Ashcroft said that under the health and safety standard in the federal law, they're not going to give federal prescribing licenses to doctors so they can help their patients kill themselves. What the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has said is that Oregon can reach out and make the federal government carve out an exception to its own separate law to make sure that the federal government helps Oregon kill people."

It would appear that the court is correct:

bulletFor the federal government to mount a massive campaign to arrest, charge, and bring to trial hundreds of physicians who followed the Oregon laws would be an intrusion by the federal government into the state of Oregon.

But the conservative Christian groups are also correct:

bulletFor Oregon to pass a law requiring an exemption from the DEA regulations would require a federal government worker add an amendment to an agency regulation. This would be an intrusion by the state of Oregon on the federal government . 1

On 2004-JUL-13, Attorney General Ashcroft asked the entire 11-judge contingent of the court rehear the case. 2 On AUG-13, the request was denied.

2004 -- Appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court:

On 2004-NOV-09, Attorney General Ashcroft appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. On 2005-FEB-22, agreed to consider it. Arguments were heard during 2005-OCT. 3

Analysis of the law's effects during 2004:

Between 1998 and 2003, the numbers of prescriptions of lethal medication rose continually. During 2004, 40 physicians wrote a total of 60 prescriptions for lethal doses of medication. This is a slight decrease from 2003. During 2004, 37 patients used the medication to commit suicide. Again, this is a slight decrease from the previous year:

Year Number of prescriptions written Number of completed PAS suicides % of patients who used the prescribed pills
1998 24 16 67%
1999 33 27 82
2000 39 27 69
2001 44 21 48
2002 58 38 66
2003 68 42 62
2004 60 37 62

The incidence of completed PAS suicides is about 12.6 per 10,000 total deaths -- i.e. one in 800 deaths.

The most frequently mentioned end-of-life concerns during 2004 were:

bullet92% reported a decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable,
bullet87% reported loss of autonomy, and
bullet78% reported loss of dignity.

As in other areas of the world that permit PAS, the rate of PAS among Oregon patients with ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease), cancer, and AIDS has been substantially higher than among patients with other illnesses. 3

2005: Supreme Court denies Federal Government appeal:

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. This is an unusual vote; almost all rulings with a moral or religious content have been decided by a 5 to 4 majority.

Ashcroft had attempted circumvent the Oregon state law permitting physician assisted suicide by threatening to prosecute physicians who prescribed fatal drugs to patients. He wrote that assisted suicide was not "a legitimate medical purpose" 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." He wrote that the authority claimed by Ashcroft was "...both beyond his expertise and incongruous with the statutory purposes and design."

As expected, the strict constructionist judges on the Court -- Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice John Roberts -- dissented. Justice Sclaia wrote: "If the term 'legitimate medical purpose' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death." Chief Justice John Roberts concurred with Justice Scalia's opinion. Justice Thomas wrote a separate dissenting opinion.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: "We are disappointed at the decision. The president [, George W, Bush,] remains fully committed to building a culture of life ... that is built on valuing life at all stages."

Reuters News Agency stated: "Both sides predicted the decision likely will lead to more states adopting assisted suicide laws. Lawmakers sponsoring a similar law in California said the ruling gave them a major boost." 4

Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-OR) said: "The court's decision has stopped, for now, the administration's attempts to wrest control of decisions rightfully left to the states and individuals."

Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center, called the ruling "a historic milestone that will protect the people's rights as patients." 4

It is important to realize that the Supreme Court did not rule that Congress cannot extend veto power to the Attorney General over the prescriptions of fatal medication. They merely ruled that the current legislation had not done so.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Stuart Shepard, "Court Erred on Assisted-Suicide Ruling," Family News in Focus, 2004-MAY-28, at: http://www.family.org
  2. Sheldon Richman, "The fraud of physician assisted suicide," Baltimore Chronicle, 2004-JUN-06, at: http://baltimorechronicle.com/
  3. Seventh Annual Report on Oregons Death with Dignity Act," State of Oregon, 2005-MAR-10, at: http://egov.oregon.gov/ This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 
  4. James Vicini, "Court rules govt. can't stop Oregon suicide law," Reuters News Agency, 2005-JAN-17, at: http://today.reuters.com/

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Copyright 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 200
Author: Bruce A Robinson

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