White House asks high court to block Ore. assisted-suicide law
Since '98, doctors OK'd to prescribe a lethal dose
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration asked the Supreme Court yesterday to block the nation's only law allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients die more quickly.
The appeal from Attorney General John Ashcroft had been expected since May, when a lower court ruled the federal government could not punish Oregon doctors who prescribed lethal doses of federally controlled drugs.
Oregon voters approved the law, and since 1998 more than 170 people have used it to end their lives. Most had cancer.
The Bush administration has argued that assisted suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" and that doctors take an oath to heal patients, not help them die.
While not as prominent as abortion, the issue is an important one for conservative Christians, who helped President Bush win a second term last week. The government waited until yesterday, the final day possible, to file paperwork at the high court.
Oregon's law, known as the Death With Dignity Act, lets patients with less than six months to live request a lethal dose of drugs after two doctors confirm the diagnosis and determine the person's mental competence to make the request.
Paul Clement, acting solicitor general, said in the appeal that the law conflicts with the federal government's powers. The attorney general's conclusion that doctors should not be allowed to treat patients with lethal doses of drugs "is the position maintained by 49 states, the federal government, and leading associations of the medical profession," he told justices.
The Supreme Court probably will decide early next year whether it will review the case. The court has been hearing cases with eight members because Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist is being treated for thyroid cancer.
The high court has dealt with right-to-die cases before. Justices held in 1997 that while Americans have no constitutional right to assisted suicide, states can decide the issue for themselves. And in 1990, the court ruled that terminally ill people can refuse life-sustaining medical treatment.
Rehnquist wrote both opinions. In the 1997 ruling, he said the idea of having someone help end another's life conflicts with "our nation's history, legal traditions, and practices."
Kathryn Tucker, legal director for Compassion in Dying, a Seattle-based group that supports physician-assisted suicide, said she expects the Supreme Court to reject the appeal, based on the previous decisions that let states set their own policies.
"I am extremely disappointed that Attorney General Ashcroft has chosen to continue ignoring the will of the voters of Oregon," said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. "I certainly plan to look into how many taxpayer dollars Mr. Ashcroft has wasted in his attempt to disenfranchise Oregon voters."
Oregon is the only state that has a right-to-die law, although leaders in other states have considered them.
At issue for the court now would be the bounds of a federal law declaring which drugs doctors may prescribe. Traditionally states, not the federal government, regulate medical practices.