Supreme Court Holds Hearing on Assisted Suicide Dispute

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Oct 5, 2005   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

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by Steven Ertelt Editor
October 5, 2005

Washington, DC ( — The Supreme Court on Wednesday held hearings on a dispute between the state of Oregon, the only one to legalize assisted suicide, and the Bush administration on whether federally controlled drugs can be used in assisted suicides there.

The president believes Congressional legislation allows him to prohibit the use of the drugs, which are the only ones used in the suicides.

The case is Gonzales vs. Oregon and the Pacific state says the Bush administration has no right to intrude on the right to privacy of elderly and disabled patients there. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales counters that the federal government can limit the use of drugs under the 1971 Controlled Substances Act that have no "legitimate medical purpose."

Solicitor General Paul Clement told justices that the "most natural reading" of the law would disallow the drugs use in assisted suicides.

The justices asked vigorous questions that suggest they have not made up their minds about the case.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is retiring and may not be around to vote on the case, asked Clement whether federal drugs laws prohibited the execution of criminals convicted under death penalty laws.

Pro-life groups say the Bush administration is right.

"The Bush Administration has properly determined that federally controlled medical drugs should be used to heal and help, not to kill," said Burke Balch, J.D., director of the NRLC Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics. "Most Americans do not want their federal government to be forced to facilitate euthanasia."

Newly-confirmed Chief Justice John Roberts took his first foray into the debate over pro-life issues. He said that, when Congress approved the disputed law, that it would never have imagined that a state legislature would legalize allowing physicians to aide patients in killing themselves or that federally controlled drugs would be used to end patients’ lives.

Roberts and other justices said that Oregon’s logic that a state should determine the use of federally controlled drugs would negate key federal anti-drug laws if a state determined some narcotics were allowable.

Several justices repeatedly disagreed with Oregon’s contention that applying federal law to all fifty states would mean varying standards in each state.

Should the court side with the Bush administration, Oregon’s law allowing assisted suicide wouldn’t be taken off the books, but it would be crippled because doctors would not be able to use any drugs to help patients kill themselves.

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.