Supreme Court Will Hear Oregon Assisted Suicide Case

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Feb 22, 2005   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Supreme Court Will Hear Oregon Assisted Suicide Case

Email this article
Printer friendly page

by Steven Ertelt Editor
February 22, 2005

Washington, DC ( — The Supreme Court will weigh in on the issue of assisted suicide as it considers a case that could affect whether the drugs used in the suicides are subject to federal control. The decision could affect whether or not Oregon’s first-in-the-nation assisted suicide law will continue to allow people to die with the help of a doctor.

The high court will hear arguments from the Bush administration that says it can prevent the use of certain drugs in assisted suicides.

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft ruled in November 2001 that the drugs used in assisted suicides in Oregon violated the Controlled Substances Act because killing a patient does not constitution a "legitimate medical purpose." Under Ashcroft’s ruling, doctors who prescribe drugs for patients to use to kill themselves would lose their presctiption-writing ability.

All of the 171 assisted suicides in the state in the six years the law has been on the books have used the federally controlled drugs.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Ashcroft and, in November, the Bush administration submitted an appeal of their decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pro-life groups hailed the decision, saying the federal government should be forced to approve the use of drugs in assisted suicides.

"The American people do not want their federal government to facilitate euthanasia," explains Burke Balch, JD, director of the National Right to Life Committee’s medical ethics center.

Balch says the 9th Circuit’s decision is "odd" because it ruled that state law trumps federal law by allowing Oregon’s assisted suicide statute to take precedence over federal law regulating the use of certain drugs.

"We are confident that the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately … uphold the position of the Bush Administration that federally controlled drugs should be used to cure and relieve pain, not to kill."

The use of narcotics and other dangerous drugs is generally prohibited by federal law except when a doctor prescribes them for a “legitimate medical purpose.”

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski said he was disappointed by the decision and said state law should be upheld.

The case is expected to be heard this October when the court begins its next session.

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

Since 1998, when the Oregon law was finalized, 171 people have used it to end their lives.

Related web sites:
Ashcroft Supreme Court brief –
Physician: Abuses of Oregon Euthanasia Law Could Occur Regularly –