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Oregon Fights for Physician-Assisted Suicide

State sues U.S. over move to strip doctors of licenses

[Editor's Note: On Nov. 8, a federal judge temporarily blocked Attorney General John Ashcroft's directive. The judge's order is effective until Nov. 20.]

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The state of Oregon is fighting a move by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to quash the nation's first physician-assisted suicide law.

Ashcroft warned doctors that they risk losing their licenses if they prescribe federally controlled drugs to terminally ill patients for anything other than pain management.

"Federal law supercedes state law and may not be nullified by legislative decisions of individual states," Ashcroft writes in a new directive to Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) administrator Asa Hutchinson. DEA agents will be in charge of monitoring and prosecuting doctors.

Ashcroft's directive reverses a 1998 ruling by his predecessor, Janet Reno, that allowed physician-assisted suicide in states that authorize the practice.

Oregon, which is the only state that allows doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives, filed suit today challenging Ashcroft's authority to limit Oregon doctors' medical practices.

"I see no alternative to filing a lawsuit to stop the federal government from pursuing legal action against law-abiding Oregon physicians," Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers says in a statement.

The federal government's position is unlawful, Myers contends. "In conjunction with patients and physicians, we will seek a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to prevent the DEA from taking any action against Oregon doctors until the case is resolved."

Under the Death with Dignity Act, passed in 1997, terminally ill Oregon residents over age 18 can seek the help of a doctor in committing suicide if they have six months or less to live, can make a fully informed decision about the step, and are capable of swallowing the poison pills. To be eligible, patients must wait at least 15 days after first expressing a desire to die, then reiterate that decision.

Since the law passed, only a small number of patients have availed themselves of the choice. The Oregon Health Division reports that 96 terminally ill Oregonians have legally obtained prescriptions for lethal doses of drugs between 1998 and 2000. Only 70 of them actually committed suicide.

"I am pleased that this issue has been clarified for the American public," Hutchinson says in a statement. "DEA has always been committed to ensuring that controlled substances are prescribed properly and that health and safety are always of paramount importance." Ashcroft's statement "supports what DEA's position has been all along. It is important for physicians to know that DEA is sensitive to pain sufferers and fully supports the use of appropriate medications that help alleviate these conditions."

"They've rewritten the Controlled Substance Act, which was designed specifically to prevent illegal trafficking in drugs," says Stephen Jamison, executive director of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies in Sausalito, Calif.

Jamison accuses Ashcroft of " trying to enforce his conservative, religious fundamentalist agenda" on Americans. "It's an attempt to use the federal government as a tool to overturn the wishes of the voters in the state of Oregon."

Right-to-die advocates don't hold out much hope for a win if the case goes to the Supreme Court.

"Ashcroft's move is going to lead to a Supreme Court case, and I don't feel very sanguine about that," says Faye Girsh, president of the Hemlock Society in Denver.

Girsh is concerned that the move will "lead to desperate end-of-life acts by terminally ill people and less adequate pain control. Doctors are going to be worried about the DEA looking over their shoulder when they prescribe adequate doses of painkiller."

What To Do

For more about assisted suicide, visit the Hemlock Society U.S.A.. For more on the Oregon law, try the state's Health Division.

SOURCES: Interviews with Stephen Jamison, executive director, World Federation of Right to Die Societies, Sausalito, Calif., Faye Girsh, president, Hemlock Society, Denver; memo from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft; DEA press release; Oregon Department of Justice press release
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