Supreme Court hears assisted suicide case

Opening up one of the most wrenching moral debates of the era, the Supreme Court began hearing arguments yesterday about Oregon’s long-contested doctor-assisted suicide law.


The 1994 law, passed with just 51 percent of Oregon voters, allows doctors to write lethal prescriptions to terminally ill patients who want to die. Supporters say the law offers dignity and relief to patients. Opponents say it’s a slippery slope to patient abuse.


The crux of the right-to-die debate may be ethical, but the court case will pivot on issues of states’ rights versus federal control. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales challenges the law on the basis of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, which regulates when and how controlled substances – in this case, prescription drugs for ending life -are used.


Under the Bush Administration’s interpretation, both attorneys general have said that Congress did not intend to include doctor-assisted suicide in the category of legitimate medical purposes.


“The Attorney General’s interpretation of the [CSA] phrases ‘legitimate medical purpose’ and ‘professional treatment’ to exclude physician-assisted suicide is supported by historical tradition and the near-unanimity of state and federal authority,” a Justice Department brief reads.


The state of Oregon argues that the CSA does protect doctor-assisted suicide and holds that states, not the attorney general, regulate medicine.


“The Attorney General’s enforcement directive – oversteps the bounds of the Attorney General’s statutory authority,” the state of Oregon’s brief reads.


This is a case Oregon has won before, against then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The May 2004 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court found Ashcroft’s directive “unlawful and unenforceable,” adding that “decisions regarding the practice of medicine – are delegated to the secretary of Health and Human Services.”


If Gonzales is successful in arguing that Congress excluded doctor-assisted suicide from the CSA, the next question is whether or not Congress actually has the authority to nullify Oregon’s laws, said Stephen Kanter, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School.


Kanter points to a Supreme Court case last year, which ruled that federal drug laws trumped California’s medical marijuana law.


“The difference with the medical marijuana case is that marijuana is completely illegal,” Kanter said. Since prescription drugs are restricted but not prohibited, the court may look at lethal prescriptions differently.


The Supreme Court has already ruled that states may choose to ban doctor-assisted suicide, as Washington has done. In 1997 court case Washington v. Glucksberg, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor gave a nod to Oregon’s one-of-a-kind statute.


“That suggests the court was sympathetic to states’ experiments,” Kanter said.

Although Oregon is the only lab for this social experiment in the nation, there’s still plenty of contention right here about the law. In 1997, 60 percent of Oregon voters defeated a measure to nullify the original law.


According to Oregon Department of Human Services, 37 terminally ill patients used the law in 2004. All had some health insurance.


Seeing the Bush administration challenge state rights in favor of federal authority belies the historically Republican values of small government, Kanter said.


“Traditionally this is the party of decentralization and limited federal power,” Kanter said. “Now you have all these issues of personal privacy – it’s particularly [ironic] when they get stuck on an issue of states’ rights.”


Though the 11-year-old law has reached the highest court, debate won’t be over until long after the court issues an opinion.


“This is one of the very difficult issues of our time,” Kanter added. “Hopefully the Supreme Court’s decision is just the start of a national conversation.”

Assisted suicide in Oregon
1994 – Oregon’s first assisted-suicide law, Ballot Measure 16, wins narrow approval with a 51 percent majority.

1997 – An effort to repeal the Oregon law is rejected by 60 percent of voters.

1997 – In a Washington state case, U.S. Supreme Court finds terminally ill patients have no constitutional right to doctor assisted -suicide, but notes that states may implement it if they wish.

2001 – U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft threatens to use the Controlled Substances Act to punish doctors who use federally controlled drugs to help patients die.

2001 – Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers files a federal suit to prevent the federal government from interfering with Oregon’s assisted-suicide law.

2004 – The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court finds in favor of Oregon; the federal government appeals the ruling.

Feb. 2005 – The U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear arguments regarding Oregon’s assisted-suicide law during its next term.

Oct. 5, 2005 – The Supreme Court, including new Chief Justice John Roberts, hears arguments for the Oregon case.