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The case of Ashcroft v. Oregon

Outside editorial

Posted: Friday, November 09, 2001

The following editorial appeared in Thursday's Chicago Tribune:

Whoever pretends to have ready answers to the dilemma of doctor-assisted suicide most likely has not had to confront the reality of a loved one being too sick to live, yet not quite sick enough to die. It's a dilemma that is nearly as hard on the family and society as it is on the patient.

Attorney General John Ashcroft apparently believes he has the ready answer, though, and that his view should trump that of the voters of Oregon.

Ashcroft this week short-circuited Oregon's law permitting assisted suicide. He instructed the Drug Enforcement Administration to remove the drug licenses of physicians who use federally controlled prescription drugs to help terminally ill patients end their lives. That, in effect, means physicians who act under Oregon's Death With Dignity Act will lose their licenses.

Through statewide referenda, Oregonians have voted not once, but twice, in favor of an assisted-suicide law. The law has survived lower court challenges.

Ashcroft's predecessor, Janet Reno, refused to block the Oregon law. Reno said, properly, that federal drug law was intended to curb drug trafficking, not the practice of medicine.

Conservatives in Congress attempted to void the Oregon initiative through legislation. That passed the House but failed twice in the Senate, in 1998 and 2000.

But now Ashcroft has taken it upon himself to be the final word. And while he says he is upholding federal law, in fact he is imposing his own personal policy view on the state of Oregon. That's wrong.

It's ironic to see ideologues on both sides of the aisle now do a quick two-step on state rights - Democrats vigorously defending them, a top Republican dismissing that as a concern. But clearly, Ashcroft's use of his authority to regulate controlled substances in this case is an unwarranted, back-door way to overturn Oregonians' decision on policy in their state. They voted for a law to permit assisted suicide.

Approximately 70 Oregonians have opted for assisted suicide since the law was passed, and six more had agreed to it before Ashcroft's directive.

The method Ashcroft intends to use to enforce his edict - by revoking the prescription privileges of doctors involved in assisted suicides - also raises concerns about whether it will put a chill on medical practices.

Will federal agents now second-guess doctors who prescribe potent painkillers that may cause death? It's no secret that in the final, pain-wracked days of the terminally ill, some doctors prescribe sedatives or painkillers that may ultimately cause the death of the patient. Faced with Ashcroft's directive, will doctors hesitate to prescribe such drugs for fear of the feds?

As public policy, the right to assisted suicide is a dubious one at best. Jack Kevorkian's macabre grandstanding did nothing to clarify it, and neither has the experience of the Netherlands where it's legal and often abused.

By pretending to settle the question of assisted-suicide by the stroke of a pen, though, Ashcroft has given a quick answer to a very complex question - and overstepped his authority.



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