Supreme Court won't interfere in debate over Ore. suicide law Permission for doctors to supply lethal drugs is up for referendum

October 15, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court decided yesterday not to interfere with an Oregon law that is the first in the nation to allow doctors to provide lethal drugs for terminally ill patients who want to end their lives.

It is unclear, however, when the law will take effect.

Oregonians will vote, on ballots the state is sending out this week, on whether to repeal the 1994 law.

The Supreme Court's action is expected to intensify the campaigning on both sides of the proposed repeal of the Death With Dignity Act -- the kind of debate that the court welcomed last summer when it refused to recognize assisted suicide as a constitutional right.

The effect of that ruling was to leave to the states, at least for the time being, discretion over whether to permit doctor-assisted suicide.

Yesterday's action fit that approach: The justices offered no view on the constitutionality of Oregon's solitary move toward allowing assisted suicides.

Under the Oregon law, patients 18 or older who have an incurable illness that doctors conclude will lead to death within six months have the right to obtain a lethal prescription from a doctor.

The patients may seek "medication for the purpose of ending" their lives "in a humane and dignified manner."

The law bars anyone from ending a patient's life by lethal injection, mercy killing or "euthanasia." The patients must take the lethal drugs themselves.

A 15-day waiting period is required before a prescription may be provided at a patient's request.

If doctors conclude that a patient is suffering from a depression that impairs judgment, no prescription can be provided unless the depression is cured.

Lawyers on each side of the constitutional dispute surrounding the law said yesterday that the measure is unlikely to take effect until after the Oregon vote on a repeal is completed Nov. 4 -- and then only if it survives that balloting.

A poll last month by the Portland Oregonian found that more than 63 percent of those surveyed opposed repealing the assisted-suicide law.

When the law was adopted, in a 1994 state voter referendum, it was approved narrowly, with 51.3 percent voting yes and 48.7 percent no.

This year's repeal proposal needs only a bare majority -- 50 percent plus 1 vote -- to pass. The balloting will be done only by mail, with voters free to send in their ballots until Nov. 4.

After the law was enacted, opponents challenged its constitutionality. A federal judge in Eugene struck it down in 1995, finding that the law did not provide enough protection against suicides by patients who did not really want to take their lives but would be induced to do so.

That decision was overturned in February by a federal appeals court.

The appellate court said that those who had challenged the law -- a dying woman, two doctors and two nursing homes -- had not proved that they would be harmed by the law and thus had no right to challenge it.

That is the result the Supreme Court refused to disturb yesterday, in effect insulating the law from constitutional challenge for now.

Lawyers for those contesting the law said they might try other maneuvers. One possibility, for example, would be to challenge the rules for implementing the law as inadequate.

The justices acted yesterday in two orders: They refused to stand by and take no action until after the repeal measure is put to a vote in Oregon. And they refused to consider reviving the ZTC constitutional challenge.

Richard E. Coleson, one of the lawyers for those challenging the law, said the court's orders "make it more urgent for the voters to take care of this; the courts won't protect them."

Eli Stutsman, the lawyer for supporters of the assisted-suicide law, said the action meant that the Supreme Court "is standing behind its own decision to support full and robust debate in the 50 states."

The court, he said, "had left the door open for states to enact death-with-dignity legislation."

The court, in other actions yesterday:

* Refused to review the constitutionality of California's term-limits law, which imposes a lifetime ban on seeking office once a term limit has been reached. The case was at a preliminary procedural stage; a new case on the issue is on its way back to the court.

* Agreed to decide whether death-row inmates who claim to be insane, and thus protected from execution, always have the right to challenge execution despite a new federal law that sharply restricts when prisoners may challenge sentences or convictions in federal court.

* Left intact a federal appeals court ruling that airline passengers have no right to sue airlines in state courts for the misconduct of other passengers during flights.

Pub Date: 10/15/97

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