Supreme Court to review Oregon right-to-die law

At issue is doctor's right to prescribe medication to help patients end lives

February 23, 2005|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to hear the Bush administration's challenge to the United States' only right-to-die law, setting the stage for a showdown over whether states may permit doctors to prescribe drugs intended to end patients' lives.

The justices will decide whether Oregon's Death with Dignity Act violates federal drug-control laws. The case will be argued in the fall term.

Oregon's voters have approved the right-to-die measure twice. In 1994, the law passed 51 percent to 49 percent, but was challenged by the state Legislature and never went into effect. Voters approved it again in 1997, 60 percent to 40 percent.

The law extends a right to die only to capable adults diagnosed as "suffering from a terminal disease" likely to take their lives within six months. A second doctor must confirm that the patient is dying, is acting voluntarily and is competent to choose to end his or her life. Only then may the doctor prescribe lethal drugs.

Hundreds of patients have consulted doctors and obtained lethal medication in the seven years since the law took effect, supporters of the law said, but only 171 have followed through.

Traditionally, states regulate the practice of medicine and license physicians to work within their borders.

In 1998, conservatives in Congress, led by Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, urged federal action to block Oregon's law. But then-Attorney General Janet Reno refused to intervene, finding that Oregon had set stringent rules to ensure that only competent terminally ill patients could obtain the necessary medication.

But in November 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft said he would seek to punish doctors who prescribed lethal medication to dying patients, regardless of the wishes of Oregon's voters.

"I hereby determine that assisting suicide is not a legitimate medical purpose," Ashcroft said. Doctors who did so would be in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act, he said, and would have their right to prescribe medicine suspended or revoked. Ashcroft's order set in motion the legal battle that reached the Supreme Court this week.

When several patients, doctors and lawyers for the state of Oregon challenged Ashcroft, a federal judge in Portland blocked his order from taking effect. Ashcroft appealed, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court ruled last year that the attorney general had exceeded his authority.

The federal drug control law "was enacted to combat drug abuse," wrote Judge Richard Tallman. "The attorney general's unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes with the democratic debate about physician-assisted suicide and far exceeds the scope of his authority."

Tallman wrote that the attorney general was seeking to "alter the usual constitutional balance between the states and the federal government," quoting a 1991 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Gregory vs. Ashcroft.

In that ruling Ashcroft - then governor of Missouri - won a victory for states' rights by arguing that state judges could be subjected to a mandatory state retirement law, despite a federal law that barred such mandatory retirements. The Supreme Court agreed. Adopting that theme in the right-to-die case, Tallman said control of medical practice had been historically within the powers of the state.

On Nov. 10, the day he announced his resignation from the Bush Cabinet, Ashcroft asked the Supreme Court to reverse the 9th Circuit ruling.

It takes the votes of at least four of the nine justices to hear an appeal; in a one-line order yesterday, the court announced it had voted to hear the case.

If the Bush administration wins, the decision would all but void Oregon's law and prevent other states from adopting similar measures. If Oregon prevails, it could encourage other states or their voters to seek passage of similar laws.

In other developments yesterday, the Supreme Court:

Rejected a challenge to its landmark ruling legalizing abortion. Without comment, justices declined to hear the appeal from Norma McCorvey, the woman once known as "Jane Roe." Her protest of Texas' abortion ban led to the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling establishing a constitutional right to abortion.

Said it will decide in a Montgomery County case whether parents or a school board has the burden of proof in showing whether a disabled child's educational plan was adequate under federal law.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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