Judge Blocks Ashcroft's Move against Law on Assisted Suicide; Says Justice Not Authorized to Target Oregon Physicians

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A federal judge yesterday barred the Justice Department from blocking an Oregon law that allows physician-assisted suicides.

In a stern ruling aimed at Attorney General John Ashcroft, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones said in Portland that the department improperly sought to "stifle an ongoing, earnest and profound debate ... concerning physician-assisted suicide."

He said the department overstepped its authority by issuing a directive in November that stated assisted suicide was not a "legitimate medical purpose."

Judge Jones said Mr. Ashcroft, "with no advance warning to Oregon," had "fired the first shot" in challenging a law that allowed such suicides. He said Oregon followed Supreme Court guidelines with a law that struck a proper balance between the interests of the terminally ill and the government's responsibility to protect them.

"The citizens of Oregon, through their democratic initiative process, have chosen to resolve the moral, legal and ethical debate on physician-assisted suicide for themselves by voting - not once, but twice - in favor of the Oregon act," the judge wrote.

The Oregon Death With Dignity Act, approved by voters in 1994 and overwhelmingly reaffirmed three years later, allows terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to request a lethal dose of drugs. The request can be made after two doctors confirm the diagnosis and judge the patient mentally competent to make the decision.

Assistant Attorney General Robert McCallum, who heads the Justice Department's civil division, said the department was assessing the "appropriate steps to take."

The ruling can be appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, and then possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mr. McCallum said the department remained convinced that its position on the merits was correct.

"Medicine is the art of preserving health, treating disease or relieving pain - assisting suicide is not medicine," he said. "Physicians pledge a sacred oath to preserve health, heal disease, relieve pain and not to terminate lives with deadly drugs.

"The United States Supreme Court calls bans on assisted suicide 'long-standing expressions of the states' commitment to the protection and preservation of human life.' And that is why almost every state and almost every Western democracy have banned assisted suicide for centuries."

The assistant attorney general said physicians may use federally controlled substances to manage pain, but there are "important medical, ethical and legal distinctions" between intentionally causing a patient's death and providing medications to eliminate or alleviate pain. …