A federal judge in Oregon has temporarily blocked Attorney General John Ashcroft’s ability to prosecute Oregon physicians who use controlled substances to help a patient in pain end his or her life. Mr. Ashcroft’s announcement in early November that he would aggressively prosecute physicians would have the effect of overturning the assisted suicide law Oregon passed in 1997.
Mr. Ashcroft said he has no problems with physicians who use controlled substances to ease pain, but because of the US Supreme Court decision mandating that states cannot suspend federal policing of the Controlled Substances Act (controlled substances can only be used for medical purposes) in the US vs Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative case earlier this year, physicians who assist in suicide would be prosecuted. Meanwhile, the Hemlock Society has initiated a campaign to convince members of Congress to pressure President Bush to reverse the attorney general’s policy announcement.
The Oregon law allows doctors to help patients die if they are both mentally competent and adult residents of the state with less than 6 months to live. Since it took effect in October 1997, at least 70 people have ended their lives. Some physicians worry about the prospect of having law enforcement personnel scrutinize how they practice medicine, but many in Oregon oppose the law, including doctors who feel that they should not be writing lethal prescriptions. "It’s an inherent conflict of interest for doctors to be on the one hand the advocates for health and well-being for patients, and on the other hand being literally the deliverer of a hastened death," said William Toffler, MD, national director of Physicians for Compassionate Care (PCC), an Oregon-based group opposed to assisted suicide.