Physician assisted suicide (PAS)
Activity in Oregon: 2004 & 2005
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:
||For 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
||For 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:
||Number of prescriptions written
||Number of completed PAS suicides
||% of patients who used the prescribed pills
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:
||92% reported a decreasing ability to participate in activities that
made life enjoyable,
||87% reported loss of autonomy, and
||78% 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
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.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Stuart Shepard, "Court Erred on Assisted-Suicide Ruling," Family
News in Focus, 2004-MAY-28, at:
Sheldon Richman, "The fraud of physician assisted suicide,"
Baltimore Chronicle, 2004-JUN-06, at:
Seventh Annual Report on Oregonís 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:
James Vicini, "Court rules govt. can't stop Oregon suicide law," Reuters News Agency, 2005-JAN-17,
Copyright © 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update and review: 2009-MAR-20
Author: Bruce A Robinson