Oregon assisted suicide law upheld.
April 17, 2002 10:59 AM   Subscribe

Oregon assisted suicide law upheld. After declaring his intent to use the Federal Controlled Substances Act to go after doctors who prescribe lethal doses of medication to patients, the AG is faced with a court ruling that "does not prohibit practitioners from prescribing and dispensing controlled substances in compliance with a carefully worded state legislative act." The plot thickens.
posted by shagoth (22 comments total)
 
Anyone have a link to the actual ruling?
posted by benh57 at 11:16 AM on April 17, 2002


Maybe the Bush administration will learn that it has to face the gray nuances of real life instead of the rigid Black and White world they live in.
posted by Red58 at 11:25 AM on April 17, 2002


Here is the ruling (warning, its a PDF).
posted by bshort at 11:30 AM on April 17, 2002


Ashcroft was trying to "stifle an ongoing, earnest and profound debate"?

Say it isn't so!
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:36 AM on April 17, 2002


Although I agree with the ruling, because I want to see the Supreme Court make a definitive ruling on the subject, I completely disagreed with the following statement:

In a harsh rebuke to Ashcroft, Jones added that the decree was an attempt to "stifle an ongoing, earnest and profound debate" on the controversial topic.

I think the judge was completely wrong to say this. He merely brought out his own bias in this case. What Ashcroft did was an administration goal, and his attempt to squelch euthanasia was perfectly legal. I believe the judge went to far in their criticism.
posted by BlueTrain at 11:39 AM on April 17, 2002


ashcroft? stifle? you dont say.
posted by sixtwenty3dc at 11:55 AM on April 17, 2002


What Ashcroft did was an administration goal, and his attempt to squelch euthanasia was perfectly legal. I believe the judge went to far in their criticism.

Attempting to override state law may be "legal" but it certainly isn't ethical or constitutional for the executive branch of the federal government to step all over everyone else's authority. I don't think the judge's statement shows a bias in the case. The judicial branch is around to balance the power of the other two branches: The statement shows strong respect for the separation of powers and state's rights, two very important checks against the executive branch's power. Checks for which the administration, particular the attorney general, doesn't have much respect for.

It's an important message to send to the executive branch, and I'm glad the judge took his opportunity to make it.
posted by daveadams at 12:27 PM on April 17, 2002


This AP story has some background that's missing from the Reuters story shagoth linked to, including the following:

The Oregon Death With Dignity Act was approved by voters in 1994 and overwhelmingly affirmed three years later when it was returned to the ballot following a failed legal challenge.

Here is the MeFi thread where we discussed Oregon's law last November, after Ashcroft decided to trample all over states' rights and the will of the voters. The MeFi server's a bit slow just now, so here's Google's cached version.
posted by diddlegnome at 12:58 PM on April 17, 2002


as someone opposed to euthenasia, I totally agree with the judge here. The Controlled Substances Act (the federal law Ashcroft was invoking here) is intended to criminalize drug trafficing, not doctor-assisted suicide. The law does prohibit doctors from prescribing drugs without a "legitimate medical purpose," but the people of Oregon have decided that doctor assisted suicide is a legitimate medical purpose. Ashcroft was basically arguing that the his definition of what is medically legitimate supercedes that of Oregon's own law.

Of course, Congress could undermine the Oregon law by amending the CSA to say that suicide drugs are not medically legitimate if it wanted, but it hasn't (in fact, it's voted down such legislation twice).

On a more philosophical level, it seems clear that these sorts of highly charged moral issues like abortion and euthenasia are best dealt with through the democratic processes of the individual states. I don't support euthenasia, but I respect the right of the people of Oregon to make their own decisions about it. By the same token, I think a Supreme Court decision recognizing doctor-assisted suicide as a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution (as they have done for abortion) would be equally offensive to democratic principles.
posted by boltman at 1:07 PM on April 17, 2002


Boltman, while I'm totally with you philosophically, it's important to note that Oregon's law is not about euthanasia. In fact, when the law was being debated, one of the fears raised by its opponents that the next step, if we allowed doctor-assisted suicide, would be "euthanasia" of the old and infirm against their will. They may have been using the word incorrectly; Merriam-Webster defines euthanasia as "the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy." Still, because the law's opponents raised the (non)issue and used that word in such an inflammatory way, I thought the distinction was important.
posted by diddlegnome at 1:21 PM on April 17, 2002


BTW, by "philosophically," I mean I agree that the democratic process is the way to deal with this issue. I have no problem with physician-assisted suicide as Oregon's law defines and allows it.
posted by diddlegnome at 1:22 PM on April 17, 2002


abortion and euthenasia are best dealt with through the democratic processes of the individual states.

I completely disagree. Like the Hawaii incident of trying to recognize gay marriages, states who wield too much power set dangerous (no negative connotation intended) precedents.

I think a Supreme Court decision recognizing doctor-assisted suicide as a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution (as they have done for abortion) would be equally offensive to democratic principles.

Abortion, death penalty, euthanasia, etc. are incredibly controversial issues that should not be established in certain states. We're talking about constitutional rights, not states' rights. And besides, the framers created a slightly top-heavy federalism for a reason.
posted by BlueTrain at 1:28 PM on April 17, 2002


This law has, by all accounts, worked well in Oregon. When the attending physician has been there with the family, it has gone very well (if you can ever say that death goes well).

For physicians, it eases the burden of prescribing enough morphine to end life, with the advice to the family of, "give her/him as much as she/he needs," knowing full well that at some point the family would intentionally overdose their loved one in order to stop the suffering.

From the beginning I have resented Ashcroft's ham-handed attempt to impose his own morality on Oregonians by applying a law that was never intended to address this issue.

Boltman, does the term euthanasia really apply? Families and loved ones are helping the dying person in the conscious decision to end their own life when death is imminent. So far, anecdotal evidence is that the dying person will choose to go before the family is ready to let them go, not the other way around.
posted by Danf at 1:36 PM on April 17, 2002


one of the fears raised by its opponents that the next step, if we allowed doctor-assisted suicide, would be "euthanasia" of the old and infirm against their will.

How could that be the next step? The law is all about consent and I can't see how this could become a slippery slope without the law being based on an authoritarian decision with no or little legal challenge from the infirmed.

Its this kind of "lets take this to the extreme" conspiracy paranoia crap that helps keep controversial civil issues down because of irrational fears. How many times did it need to be repeated that no one wants to clone Hitler when cloning first became the big thing in the media?

Source: Oregon Health Services.
The Death with Dignity Act allows terminally ill Oregon residents to obtain from their physicians and use prescriptions for self-administered, lethal medications. The Act states that ending one's life in accordance with the law does not constitute suicide. However, we have used the term "physician-assisted suicide" rather than "Death with Dignity" to describe the provisions of this law because physician-assisted suicide is the term used by the public, and by the medical literature, to describe ending life through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose. The Death with Dignity Act legalizes physician-assisted suicide, but specifically prohibits euthanasia, where a physician or other person directly administers a medication to end another's life.

posted by skallas at 1:37 PM on April 17, 2002


Bluetrain: So if we were to frown on "states who wield too much power", where do we draw the line? It seems as though legislation should ideally flow from the local level (most community specific) through the states, and to the national level. Then, if states (or communities) are passing laws that attempt to strictly contradict federal statute they can be struck down. This allows individual communities to become "factories of democracy", which was, btw, what the founders envisioned the individual states to be.
posted by bshort at 1:38 PM on April 17, 2002


BlueTrain, the problem with having the Court decide these issues is that there is no language in the Constitution that deals with them (with the exception of the death penality). Courts would have to decide the euthanasia issue on the basis of "substantive due process" which is so murky as to be totally arbitrary. Basically, any right that the Court decides is "fundamental to a scheme of ordered liberty" it can recognize as a Constitutional right. In the case of abortion, substantive due process was invoked to hold that the woman has a fundamental right to privacy in making reproductive choices. A court with a different moral perspective could have just as easily held that the fetus has a Constitutional right to life. In the early part of this century, a conservative court used substantive due process to hold that there was a fundamental right to contract, and used this principle to hold that all state laws that regulated labor relations (minimum wage, child labor, etc) were unconstitutional. Thankfully, that decision (Lochner v. New York) is no longer with us, but the doctrine that allowed it is.

In sum, its way too much power for an unelected body to hold, since there are simply no logical limits to how the doctrine can be applied. A liberal court can use the doctrine to overturn all sorts of conservative laws and a conservative court can use the doctrine to overturn all sorts of liberal laws. It's just not good law.
posted by boltman at 1:45 PM on April 17, 2002


Thank you, skallas. There was no reason for euthanasia to become the next step, but that didn't stop some people from arguing that it would. Logic had nothing to do with it; it was all about raising irrational fears. Happily, the voters saw through their BS.
posted by diddlegnome at 1:45 PM on April 17, 2002


So if we were to frown on "states who wield too much power", where do we draw the line?

The blurry grey that the Court deals with all the time. We don't draw the line; the Court usually does, and I'm fairly satisfied with most rulings.

And this is exactly why I'm for Ashcroft's decision to follow adminstation policy and go after doctor-assisted suicide. States have the freedom to do such things, but the federal govt. and constitution have the final say.

To go back to my gay rights' example, if Hawaii had legalized marriages, either Congress would have passed federal law banning them (I'm basing this on govt. opinion at the time) or the Supreme Court would have ruled for one side or the other, creating a landmark decision.

In sum, its way too much power for an unelected body to hold, since there are simply no logical limits to how the doctrine can be applied.

I'm not blind to the power the Court wields, but if we follow history, their rulings and public opinion have had a very symbiotic relationship.
posted by BlueTrain at 1:55 PM on April 17, 2002


Bluetrain: "States have the freedom to do such things, but the federal govt. and constitution have the final say."

Well, yes, indeed they do, although according to the Tenth Amendment:
"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Or, in other words, if a community wants to pass a law that expressly allows something, then unless it contradicts federal statute they are completely within their right to do so.

For instance, a state could pass a law that allows prior restraint of speech. They would be within their right to do so, but the law would almost certainly get struck down by the Supreme Court (if not the Supreme Court of the state, then certainly by the Supreme Court of the US).

But that's not what Ashcroft was trying to do. He was attempting to interpret US statute so as to contradict (and therefore overrule) state law. Which, I guess, he can do, although on a non-legal level he's just opening himself up for ridicule.

I guess my take on it is that I don't think you and I are necessarily in disagreement. I'm just saying that states should (and do) pass laws that cause an essential tension between the rights desired by the local populace and the rights that are enumerated by the constitution. If we were to rely on national politicians to make fundamental changes to laws I very much doubt that anyone would be happy. e.g. The blue laws that are part of Massachusetts law would probably not really work for Lousiana.
posted by bshort at 2:47 PM on April 17, 2002


I'm all for local power versus centralized power. Who's to say that the policies that the government makes in Washington have anything to do with what I want as a voter in Oregon. We still have no sales tax, for instance...

If the federal gov't is supposed to control us totally, what is the reason for having states?

As a side note, I live in Oregon, and the first election I took part in was when the physician assisted suicide bill was referred back to the voters.
Ashcroft lost my respect a while ago for various and sundry reasons, glad to see the Supreme Court agrees with me.
posted by SpecialK at 2:53 PM on April 17, 2002


The "Earnest and profound debate" part is not bias at all. It's a direct quote from the supreme court decision on the Washington law.

Good to read that ruling before commenting folks. :)
posted by benh57 at 5:03 PM on April 17, 2002


BlueTrain: The Federal branch has already put in its proverbial two cents via Defense Of Marriage Act (or DOMA) in anticipation of states recognizing gay marriage, so the issue is essentially moot.

I am curious though, if a loved one of yours were living what remained of their lives in intractable pain what would you do?
posted by sillygit at 6:28 PM on April 17, 2002


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