Thu, Feb 24, 2005 - Page 7 News List

US Supreme Court to hear challenge to suicide law

RIGHT TO DIE The court's decision sets the ground for another conflict over whether federal or state governments should have final say on the question


The Supreme Court stepped back into the right-to-die debate, agreeing to hear the Bush administration's challenge to a unique state law allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients die more quickly.

The decision on Tuesday to review Oregon's assisted suicide law during the session beginning in October sets up another fight over whether states or the federal government should decide the delicate question.

The same nine justices sided with states in 1997, but four years later Attorney General John Ashcroft declared that federal drug laws prohibited doctors from prescribing lethal doses. An appeals court rejected that interpretation and the Bush administration is appealing the decision.

Since the Oregon law took effect in 1997, more than 170 people have used it to end their lives. The law is meant for only extremely sick people -- those with incurable diseases who two doctors agree have six months or less to live and are of sound mind.

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, said the Bush administration is trampling on state's rights.

"While politics has driven the appeals of the lower court's decisions on this law, I am confident that now that politics are put aside, the Supreme Court will ultimately side with the rights of Oregonians as citizens of a sovereign state," he said.

But a physicians' group that opposes Oregon's law said it is hopeful the court will toss out the law on the grounds that giving lethal prescriptions is not a legitimate medical practice.

"We don't believe that any state should be permitted to unilaterally exempt itself from federal law forbidding the misuse of federally controlled substances to overdose vulnerable patients," said Dr Kenneth Stevens, spokesman for Physicians for Compassionate Care.

A panel of the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Oregon last May, saying Ashcroft's "unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes with the democratic debate about physician-assisted suicide."

Ashcroft filed the appeal in November, on the day his resignation was announced.

Oregon voters passed the law in 1994 but it was placed on hold because of legal challenges. In 1997, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that individuals had no constitutional right to die, upholding state bans on physician-assisted suicide. However, the opinion by Chief Justice William Rehnquist said individual states could decide to permit the practice.

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