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