Court: Bush Can’t Stop Federally-Controlled Drugs in Assisted Suicides

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 26, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Court: Bush Can’t Stop Federally-Controlled Drugs in Assisted Suicides

by Steven Ertelt Editor
May 26, 2004

San Francisco, CA ( — A federal appeals court has sided with the state of Oregon — telling the Bush administration that it can’t prohibit federally regulated drugs from being used in assisted suicides in the state.

Judge Richard Tallman wrote the opinion for the 2-1 majority of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and said, "The attorney general’s unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes with the democratic debate about physician assisted suicide."
Citing the Controlled Substances Act, Attorney General John Ashcroft ruled last year that the drugs used in Oregon assisted suicides, all of which are federally regulated, can no longer be used.

Ashcroft said that assisted suicide is "not a legitimate medical purpose," and said doctors who prescribe lethal doses of such federally regulated drugs could lose their medical licenses.

The state took the Bush administration to court over the decision.

Tallman said the appeals court felt Ashcroft’s ruling "far exceeds the scope of his authority under federal law."

Lori Kehoe, the director of the New York State Right to Life Committee and a leading expert on euthanasia issues, told she hoped the Supreme Court will overturn the decision.

"It is absurd to argue that state law trumps federal law and we look forward to the 9th Circuit being set straight by the Supreme Court," Kehoe said.

In a 1997 case, the Supreme Court ruled that no right to assisted suicide exists, but states could decide whether to allow assisted suicides to take place.

"The question here is does federal law authorize making these decisions as a legitimate medical purpose," Kehoe explained. "We are hopeful that the [Supreme] Court will agree that killing patients is not a legitimate medical purpose."

The 9th Circuit’s decision affirms a ruling handed down by U.S. District Judge Robert Jones in April 2002. Judge Jones said the Controlled Substances Act doesn’t give Ashcroft the authority to determine what is a legitimate medical practice.

The 9th Circuit judges also said Ashcroft’s decision lacked Congressional approval, says the Controlled Substances Act only allows the Attorney General to intervene in matters of drug abuse and prevention, and said the Secretary of Health and Human Services is the more appropriate person to regulate medical practices.

The 9th Circuit ruling continues the injunction against Ashcroft’s decision.

In an interview earlier this month, likely Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry said he disagreed with the Bush administration.

Kerry refused to answer directly, but eventually told the Salem Statesman Journal newspaper, "I think the states have the right to wrestle with those kinds of issues."

"I think it fair to say that [Kerry] would direct the federal government to stop insisting that allowing doctors to prescribe or pharmacists to dispense lethal drugs for assisted suicide violates federal law, even if it does not violate state law," pro-life attorney Tom Marzen told

"[Kerry’s] policy would clear the way for state laws against assisted suicide to fall like dominos," Marzen, who monitors end-of-life issues, added.

Related web sites:
State of Oregon v. Ashcroft decision