Battle Over Physician-Assisted Suicide Continues

January 1, 2002

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

A federal judge in Oregon has temporarilyblocked Attorney General John Ashcroft’s ability to prosecute Oregonphysicians who use controlled substances to help a patient in pain end his orher life. Mr. Ashcroft’s announcement in early November that he wouldaggressively prosecute physicians would have the effect of overturning theassisted suicide law Oregon passed in 1997. 

Mr. Ashcroft said he has no problemswith physicians who use controlled substances to ease pain, but because of theUS Supreme Court decision mandating that states cannot suspend federal policingof the Controlled Substances Act (controlled substances can only be used formedical purposes) in the US vs Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative caseearlier this year, physicians who assist in suicide would be prosecuted.Meanwhile, the Hemlock Society has initiated a campaign to convince members ofCongress to pressure President Bush to reverse the attorney general’s policyannouncement.

The Oregon law allows doctors to help patients die if they areboth mentally competent and adult residents of the state with less than6 months to live. Since it took effect in October 1997, at least 70 peoplehave ended their lives. Some physicians worry about the prospect of having lawenforcement personnel scrutinize how they practice medicine, but many in Oregonoppose the law, including doctors who feel that they should not be writinglethal prescriptions. "It’s an inherent conflict of interest for doctorsto be on the one hand the advocates for health and well-being for patients, andon the other hand being literally the deliverer of a hastened death," saidWilliam Toffler, MD, national director of Physicians for Compassionate Care (PCC),an Oregon-based group opposed to assisted suicide.