U.S. court throws out challenge to suicide law Barring new action, Oregon doctors can begin prescribing lethal drugs

February 28, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court set the stage yesterday for doctors in Oregon to begin providing lethal medicine so that terminally ill patients in that state can commit suicide.

Unless that ruling is blocked by new legal maneuvers from opponents, an Oregon law that authorizes doctor-assisted suicides -- the first such law in the nation -- will take effect in three weeks.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in hTC San Francisco threw out a constitutional challenge to a ballot proposal that Oregon's voters approved in November 1994.

Although that new law was to go into effect in December 1994, it never did because a federal district judge found it unconstitutional. With yesterday's ruling, however, the law can take effect.

Opponents of the Oregon law said they planned to take the dispute to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, they said, they would seek an order to bar doctors from beginning to provide death-producing prescriptions to the terminally ill, according to one of the challengers' lawyers, Richard E. Coleson of Terre Haute, Ind.

Under the measure, a person is considered terminally ill once doctors determine that the patient will die within six months.

The appeals court's new ruling said nothing about the constitutionality of the Oregon law.

It simply concluded that none of the individuals, doctors or medical facilities that had challenged it had a right to be in court, because they could not prove that they would suffer harm from the law.

The Supreme Court is preparing a decision on whether the U.S. Constitution provides a right for terminally ill patients to have a doctor's help in committing suicide.

The Oregon measure creates such a right only under state law.

Pub Date: 2/28/97

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