The right to decide.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday provided a well-deserved death without dignity to the Bush administration's quest to block a voter-approved Oregon law that authorizes physician-assisted suicide.
On a 6-3 vote, the court said former Attorney General John Ashcroft exceeded his authority when he ruled in 2001 that physicians would lose their federal prescription-writing privileges if they prescribed lethal doses of medications under the Oregon law.
The ruling was a loud and clear rebuke to Ashcroft and to Alberto Gonzales, his successor as attorney general, who has carried on Ashcroft's unwise and fundamentally unconservative effort to negate Oregon's law. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy scathingly declared that the "authority claimed by the attorney general is both beyond his expertise and incongruous with the statutory purposes and design."
The ruling is a resounding victory for states' rights - but not necessarily, as some will claim, for assisted suicide. Indeed, Kennedy took care to note that the issue before the court was not the morality of assisted suicide, a matter on which many Oregonians and fellow Americans disagree, but the legality of the attorney general's interpretation of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
The majority upheld rulings by lower courts that Congress had crafted the law to curb narcotics trafficking, not to enable the federal government to control the medical practices of individual states. Indeed, Ashcroft's interpretation, if unchecked, would "effect a radical shift of authority from the states to the federal government to define general standards of medical practice in every locality," Kennedy wrote.
Oregonians voted for the assisted suicide law not once, but twice - approving it narrowly in 1994 and then by a 60-40 margin in 1997. Opponents in Congress, then including Ashcroft, made several futile attempts to annul Oregon's law. When Ashcroft became attorney general in 2001, he took the lead in the fight against assisted suicide.
Ashcroft arbitrarily reversed a decision made by his predecessor, Janet Reno, by declaring that the Controlled Substances Act could be used to regulate medical practice and to punish Oregon physicians who prescribed lethal drugs.
Ashcroft's declaration came not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a time when the attorney general should have been more preoccupied with al-Qaeda's jihad than with his own holy war against assisted suicide. It also ran starkly counter to traditional conservative conviction that the federal government should rarely infringe on the rights of states.
The 6-3 margin was surprising, especially given uncertainty over how justices would rule in the Oregon case. The court had previously ruled that federal drug laws prohibiting the sale or use of marijuana trump state laws legalizing medicinal use of pot, and Justice officials pursued a similar strategy in their assault on the Oregon law.
Also surprising was Justice Antonin Scalia's presence, with Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts, among the dissenters. In a 2002 speech in Oregon, Scalia addressed the issue of assisted suicide and seemed to make it clear that he regarded the assisted suicide law as an issue of states' rights - and one he had no desire to see come before the high court.
While the ruling settles the issue of assisted suicide in Oregon for now, the law's long-term prospects remain uncertain. Kennedy rightly acknowledged that the struggle over the Oregon law remains part of an ongoing "political and moral debate."
The court's ruling doesn't preclude the possibility of Congress enacting a new law that explicitly outlaws the use of controlled substances to end lives. Lawmakers should resist the temptation to impose their will and leave this profoundly important debate to the states.
As other states consider assisted suicide, they would do well to consider the Oregon model, which sets out detailed procedures and rigorous requirements. Despite ominous predictions that the law would be abused, surveys have shown it is working exactly as intended: It is giving the terminally ill who choose to use it the option of ending their lives with dignity and a minimum of suffering.
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|Title Annotation:||Editorials; Court upholds Oregon's assisted suicide law|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Jan 18, 2006|
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