Appeals Court Won’t Review Decision on Drugs in Assisted Suicides

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Aug 16, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Appeals Court Won’t Review Decision on Drugs in Assisted Suicides Email this article
Printer friendly page

by Steven Ertelt Editor
August 16, 2004

San Francisco, CA ( — A federal appeals court has refused to hear an appeal of a ruling striking down a decision by Attorney General John Ashcroft prohibiting doctors from using federally-controlled drugs in assisted suicides.

Last week, a majority of the 25 judges who sit on the appeals court voted against holding a rehearing on the decision. The decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals likely paves the way to a battle at the Supreme Court.

Pro-life attorney Tom Marzen, a nationally recognized expert on euthanasia law, told that he was not surprised by the decision.

"It was never likely that the Ninth Circuit would accept en banc review," Marzen explained. "The real questions are now whether the Justice Department will request Supreme Court review and whether the Supreme Court will accept it."

The Bush administration has not yet decided whether it will appeal the ruling.

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 controlled, can no longer be used.

A majority of a three judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May that Ashcroft’s "unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes with the democratic debate about physician assisted suicide."

The Bush administration appealed that ruling and the 9th Circuit’s decision prohibits a rehearing on it.

Ashcroft was unlikely to prevail at the appellate court level. The 9th Circuit is considered the most liberal appeals court in the country.

"[A]ssisting suicide is not a legitimate medical purpose," Bush administration attorneys argue in their request for the full appeals court hearing.

As a result, the president should be able to declare that drugs under federal regulations can’t be used to kill patients via assisted suicides, the Bush administration and pro-life organizations argue.

Justice Department attorneys also argued that assisting patient deaths violates the oath doctors take and turns healers into killers.

Marzen previously said "the Bush administration is willing to fight all the way to keep the medical professions from providing deadly drugs to people so they can kill themselves."

Under Ashcroft’s order, doctors who prescribed lethal overdoses of the prohibited drugs could lose their licenses. Physicians wanting to help patients end their lives would have to use drugs other than those that fall under the CSA regulations.

In a May interview, likely Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry said he disagreed with the Bush administration about regulating the drugs. He supports Oregon’s assisted suicide law.

Some 171 people have ended their lives under the 1998 Oregon law, the only one of its kind in the nation.

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.