Assisted Suicide Upheld

Article excerpt

Byline: Tim Christie The Register-Guard

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday rebuffed a Bush administration effort to upend Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, capping a four-year battle over the nation's only law that permits physician-assisted suicide.

The 6-3 ruling means Oregon doctors can continue to prescribe lethal doses of medicine to dying patients without fear that federal drug agents will come knocking on their doors.

Advocates of assisted suicide hailed the ruling as a major victory and predicted it would embolden other states, such as California and Vermont, to follow Oregon's lead. Opponents decried the decision and expressed hope that Congress would pass a law to block assisted suicide.

The justices found that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft overstepped his authority in 2001 when he directed federal agents to investigate Oregon doctors suspected of participating in the assisted suicide law, and sought to revoke their licenses to prescribe federally controlled drugs if they were found to have prescribed lethal doses.

Ashcroft said assisted suicide was not a legitimate medical practice, and that the Controlled Substances Act, a law intended to curb drug abuse and trafficking, authorized him to move against Oregon's law.

"The idea that Congress gave the attorney general such broad and unusual authority through an implicit delegation in the CSA's registration provision is not sustainable," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.

He quoted an earlier Supreme Court case: "Congress, we have held, does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions - it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes."

Kennedy was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer and retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The dissenting opinion was written by Justice Antonin Scalia and signed by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas; Thomas also wrote a separate dissent.

"If the term 'legitimate medical purpose' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death," Scalia wrote.

Scalia said the majority's opinion "is perhaps driven by a feeling that the subject of assisted suicide is none of the federal government's business," adding that it was easy to sympathize with that position.

But, he said, the federal government has long used its powers "for the purpose of protecting public morality," and that Congress granted the executive branch authority to prevent assisted suicide.

The ruling was the first major case for Roberts, who was sworn in last fall, and one of the last for O'Connor, who will step down soon after Samuel Alito is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Robert Kenneth of Portland, a spokesman for a group known as Death with Dignity, said he was ``very pleased and relieved'' by the high court's decision.

``I couldn't be happier. I am a little surprised given the nature of the court. I knew we could rely on Sandra Day O'Connor to give balance to this issue. This is a remarkable ruling as she steps down and retires,'' Kenneth said.

The Oregon attorney general's office, which had urged the high court to uphold the assisted suicide law in oral arguments last fall, said Tuesday's ruling removes any doubts about the legality of physician aid-in-dying.

``For Oregon's physicians and pharmacists, as well as patients and their families, today's ruling confirms that Oregon's law is valid and that they can act under it without fear of federal sanctions,'' state Solictor General Mary Williams said.

The issue is likely to be taken up by Congress, said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat who threatened filibusters to block earlier efforts intended to cripple the Oregon law.

"Most of the same groups that opposed the Oregon law initially are still out there," he said, "and my sense is with the 2006 election coming up and the sparring under way for the 2008 presidential campaign, there's still the potential for folks to organize, and to again try to undermine the Oregon law. …