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Ore. Right-To-Die Law Wins Second Battle

May 27, 2004

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ The state’s landmark right-to-die law has survived a second challenge in federal court by the Bush administration and supporters hope that means the 10-year battle over the law has finally been settled.

In a 2-1 ruling Wednesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in San Francisco said Attorney General John Ashcroft cannot try to undermine Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act by prohibiting doctors from prescribing lethal doses of federally controlled drugs.

Ashcroft’s aim ``interferes with the democratic debate about physician-assisted suicide,″ Circuit Judge Richard Tallman said. He said Ashcroft’s threat to take action ``far exceeds the scope of his authority under federal law.″

The act, which allows terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to request a lethal dose of drugs, has been approved twice by Oregon voters and has now survived two federal appeals court challenges.

In the six years the law has been in effect, 171 terminally ill patients _ most of them suffering from cancer _ have chosen to ask their doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs.

Under the safeguards required by the law, at least two doctors must decide the patient is dying but still mentally able to make the decision to take the drugs by himself or herself.

The court’s decision is unlikely to immediately open the floodgates for similar legislation in other states. The states have been cool to the idea. Hawaii lawmakers shelved a proposal in March, and in Vermont, the only other known state to recently grapple with it, lawmakers balked last week.

``This isn’t something that is going to rush out in 20 states tomorrow,″ said Scott Swenson, executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center. ``The onus is for us to secure a couple more states to prove it can work.″

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the government was reviewing the decision, and was not prepared to comment on whether it would appeal.

Eli Stutsman, co-author of the law, said Ashcroft will have difficulty appealing the latest ruling because it deals with the narrow issue of whether the attorney general can use the Controlled Substances Act to regulate medical practice, a duty the court emphasized is traditionally left to states.

``This is a very strong ruling and I predict it will be the ruling that stands,″ Stutsman said of the 9th Circuit decision. ``I don’t believe there’s any reason the Supreme Court will want to review this.″

But Dr. Kenneth Stevens, a critic of the law and president of Physicians for Compassionate Care, said the ruling doesn’t change the ethical problems it poses to doctors. ``We’re to be healers, we’re to be comforters. We’re not to be executioners.″

Stevens noted the American Medical Association and other professional organizations have consistently opposed assisted suicide. He predicted the latest ruling will invite an appeal unless Congress settles the issue.

The Death With Dignity Act passed as a ballot measure in 1994 but was not signed into law until 1998 by former Gov. John Kitzhaber, a doctor and longtime supporter, following an initial legal challenge that the Supreme Court declined to hear after it was rejected by the same appeals court.

In 1997, the Supreme Court said that there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide but that states may decide the issue for themselves without federal interference.


On the Net:

Compassion in Dying: http://www.compassionindying.org

Physicians for Compassionate Care: http://www.pccef.org

Oregon Death with Dignity Center: http://www.dwd.org

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