Court hears assisted suicide case

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Gov. Ted Kulongoski said Tuesday he was disappointed the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Bush administration challenge of the Oregon assisted suicide law, but he believes it will be upheld.

Kulongoski, a Democrat who formerly served on the Oregon Supreme Court, pointed out the law has been upheld twice by a federal appeals court and has been in effect for more than seven years after it was twice approved by Oregon voters.

The governor said he is confident the Supreme Court will "ultimately side with the rights of Oregonians as citizens of a sovereign state … who have a fundamental right to autonomy and to control their own destiny."

But the high court decision to hear the challenge to the only assisted suicide law in the nation was praised by opponents, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Physicians for Compassionate Care.

"We don’t believe that any state should be permitted to unilaterally exempt itself from federal law," said Dr. Kenneth Stevens, a spokesman for the physicians’ group.

The Supreme Court announced Tuesday it will review a lower court ruling that said the federal government cannot sanction or hold doctors criminally liable for prescribing overdoses to the terminally ill under the Oregon law.

The law allows doctors to prescribe a lethal overdose requested by a terminally ill patient.

Since 1998, 171 people, most with cancer, have used the law to end their lives. Supporters say the fact the law is seldom used and its strict safeguards have been carefully followed proves it has been successful in giving the terminally ill control over their medical care.

"The law has operated flawlessly for seven years. The Death with Dignity law has been a catalyst to improved end-of-life care – in Oregon and across the nation," said Eli Stutsman, a co-author of the Oregon law.

Legal experts say the Supreme Court has repeatedly supported states’ rights and has limited federal authority over the past decade. The legal battle over the Oregon law favors states’ rights, they say.

"It’s quite surprising the Supreme Court would take it," said Eric Rakowski, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, "because the trend has been in favor of state’s rights since the mid ’90s. That’s where the court has been going, so it’s puzzling to me."

Polls and the two ballot measures approved by voters have shown Oregonians overwhelmingly endorse their state’s assisted suicide law. It’s a sentiment shared by many of the state’s politicians.

In 2000, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden held off a Senate vote on a House-passed bill that would have forbidden doctors from prescribing lethal doses of controlled painkillers.

On Tuesday, the Democrat said he is ready to continue his fight for the Oregon law.

"I can’t envision the Supreme Court changing course when Oregonians have conducted the discussion and come to a conclusion twice in a thoughtful and responsible way," Wyden said in a statement.

"This is an issue that should be left up to the voters of the individual states, and I am determined that the rights of Oregonians will not be trampled here," Wyden said.

He expects the fight will move to Congress if the Supreme Court upholds the Oregon law. "If that happens, I will be at my post," Wyden said.

U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican, did not return calls seeking comment.

Rep. Greg Walden, also a Republican, said he’s siding with the wishes of Oregonians.

"Congressman Walden believes in the right of Oregonians to vote on this issue, as they have twice," said his spokeswoman, Angela Wilhelms.

"The state has spoken clearly on two occasions in the past, and he hopes the Supreme Court will decide with Oregonians," she said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had a different view.

"Federally controlled drugs should be used to heal and comfort patients, not to kill them," said Cathy Cleaver Ruse, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.