High Court Takes Up Physician-Assisted Suicide ; at Issue: Federal Authority to Enforce Drug Laws versus the Power of the States to Regulate Medicine

Article excerpt

Oregon is the only state in the nation where an individual diagnosed as terminally ill can ask a physician to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs.

Since 1997, when the Oregon Death With Dignity Act took effect, more than 200 individuals have requested medical help to end their lives.

Supporters of the law call the process physician-assisted death. Opponents, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft, view it as state- sanctioned killing, and say it is incompatible with a physician's role as healer.

Wednesday, after four years of litigation, the issue arrives at the US Supreme Court where the justices must decide whether Mr. Ashcroft's efforts to undermine the Oregon law were a valid exercise of federal power.

At issue is a clash between the power of the federal government to reinterpret and enforce the nation's drug laws versus the power of the states to regulate the practice of medicine in ways supported by elected state officials and twice approved by Oregon voters.

"This is a case of who gets to choose what the policy is, the federal government or the states," says Kevin Neely, spokesman for the Oregon attorney general's office, which is defending the Oregon law. "Our history has put this power squarely in the hands of the states, and that's where it should be."

The Bush administration's solicitor general, Paul Clement, disagrees. He says the issue is who decides the scope of the federal drug laws, the attorney general, seeking to enforce a uniform national standard, or each of the 50 states with 50 different views on the subject.

The dispute began in 2001 when then Attorney General Ashcroft marshaled the full force of the federal government to undercut the Oregon law. He did it by rewriting regulations to make it a crime for any doctor to prescribe federally- controlled drugs for the purpose of ending a life.

Reversal from Clinton years

In rewriting the regulations, Ashcroft reversed an earlier legal determination by the Justice Department under Attorney General Janet Reno. Ms. Reno concluded that the Oregon law did not clash with federal drug laws.

In contrast, Ashcroft concluded that "the act's clearly stated purpose is to enhance and maintain life, not end it," according to the government's brief. This conclusion is entitled to the respect and deference of judges who should not second-guess the policy decisions of federal officials, Mr. Clement says.

Oregon countered by filing suit in federal court charging that Ashcroft was abusing his power as attorney general at the expense of the sovereign authority of the state. Oregon won - twice.

The case which began as Oregon v. Ashcroft has since become Gonzales v. Oregon, adopting the name of the new attorney general, Alberto Gonzales.

Some supporters of Ashcroft's position see the case as an opportunity for the high court to address the right to life. …