U.S. Supreme Court to review PAS law

Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act under federal fire

A Bush administration challenge to the nation’s only physician-assisted suicide law will be reviewed by the Supreme Court later this year.

Oregon is the only state that allows people who meet specific criteria to take their own lives with the help of physicians, without legal recriminations to the physician. The Bush administration and some members of Congress oppose the law on grounds that prescribing a lethal drug for purposes of suicide violates the federal Controlled Substances Act. Last year, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, the plaintiff in the ongoing case against the law, cannot sanction or hold doctors criminally liable for prescribing overdoses under Oregon law.

The Bush administration has appealed, and the Supreme Court has agreed to review Oregon’s law. Legal experts say the outcome could affect the future of other such laws, should they be proposed in other states. Currently, Oregon is the only state with a physician-assisted suicide law on the books.

Oregon’s Death with Dignity law was enacted in 1997. It allows mentally competent adults to take their own lives with the help of a physician if certain conditions are met: The individual must declare his or her intentions in writing, must be diagnosed with a terminal illness, and must take the prescribed lethal drug on his or her own after a waiting period. The lethal drug must be taken orally. Oregon prohibits lethal injection, "mercy killing," and active euthanasia.

Aside from concerns that the law violates federal drug control laws, opponents to the physician-assisted suicide law argue that it encourages suicides, or that physicians or family members might use it to push vulnerable ill people to kill themselves.

According to Oregon’s Department of Human Services, 171 people used the Death with Dignity Act process to end their lives between 1998 and 2003. Most of those people (80%) were terminally ill with cancer, followed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and HIV/AIDS.

The Supreme Court has ruled in previous cases that there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide, but has not declared the practice illegal. Public opinion polls seem to indicate support among those polled for physician-assisted suicide; however, laws similar to Oregon’s have failed when proposed in other states, and the majority of states outlaw any form of euthanasia.

In attempting to thwart the Oregon act under federal law, Ashcroft proposed that physicians who prescribe drugs for patients to use to kill themselves would lose their right to write prescriptions.

Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, the use of controlled drugs is generally prohibited, except when prescribed for legitimate medical purposes. Oregon law proponents say a state-controlled and physician-monitored assisted suicide is a legitimate medical purpose; opponents say suicide is not ever a legitimate medical purpose.