Oregon's landmark right-to-die law has survived a second challenge in federal court by the Bush administration, and supporters hope that means the 10-year battle over the law has finally been settled.
In a 2-1 ruling last week, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said Attorney General John Ashcroft cannot try to undermine Oregon's Death With Dignity Act by prohibiting doctors from prescribing lethal doses of federally controlled drugs. Ashcroft's aim "interferes with the democratic debate about physician-assisted suicide," Circuit Judge Richard Tallman said. He added that Ashcroft's threat to take action "far exceeds the scope of his authority under federal law."
The act, which allows terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to request a lethal dose of drugs, has been approved twice by Oregon. In the six years the law has been in effect, 171 terminally ill patients have chosen to ask their doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs. Under the law, at least two doctors must decide the patient is dying and is still mentally able to make the decision to take the drugs by himself or herself.
The court's decision is unlikely to immediately open the floodgates for similar legislation in other states. Hawaii lawmakers shelved a proposal in March, and in Vermont, the only other known state to recently grapple with it, lawmakers balked earlier this month.
Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the government was reviewing the decision and was not prepared to comment on whether it would appeal.
Eli Stutsman, co-author of the law, said Ashcroft will have difficulty appealing the latest ruling because it deals with the narrow issue of whether the attorney general can use the Controlled Substances Act to regulate medical practice, a duty the court emphasized is traditionally left to states. But Dr. Kenneth Stevens, a critic of the law and president of Physicians for Compassionate Care, said the ruling doesn't change the ethical problems it poses to doctors.