Tuesday, January 17, 2006

SCOTUS Upholds Oregon's Physician-Assisted Suicide Law

The Supreme Court today slapped down the Bush administration's attempt to impose penalties on Oregon doctors who help terminally ill patients end their lives.

The case, Gonzales v. Oregon, challenged an "Interpretive Ruling" issued by former Attorney General John Ashcroft in which Ashcroft claimed that physicians who prescribed lethal doses of medications under Oregon's Death With Dignity Act were violating the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The CSA regulates and controls drug trafficking, including the dispensation of prescription drugs. Physicians can be prosecuted under the law if they are not prescribing drugs for a legitimate medical purpose. Oregon's assisted-suicide law allows physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients -- under tightly defined circumstances -- without fear of prosecution. But the Bush administration, in yet another example of its expansive view of federal powers, claimed that physicians who did so were not dispensing drugs for a "legitimate medical purpose."

SCOTUS rejected that argument:

In a 6-3 vote, the court ruled that then-U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft overstepped his authority in 2001 by trying to use a federal drug law to prosecute doctors who prescribed lethal overdoses under the Oregon Death With Dignity Act, the only law in the nation that allows physician-assisted suicide. The measure has been approved twice by Oregon voters and upheld by lower court rulings.
Writing the opinion of the court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the federal law bars doctors from using prescriptions to engage in illicit drug dealing but that "the statute manifests no intent to regulate the practice of medicine generally." Moreover, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) relies on "a functioning medical profession regulated under the states' police powers," he wrote.

"In the face of the CSA's silence on the practice of medicine generally and its recognition of state regulation of the medical profession, it is difficult to defend the Attorney General's declaration that the statute impliedly criminalizes physician-assisted suicide," Kennedy wrote.

The dissenters were Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and the new Chief Justice, John Roberts.

Scalia wrote, in part:

"If the term 'legitimate medical purpose' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death."

Curious that Scalia should have this concern. He is not, to my knowledge, troubled by the legal dispensation of drugs to produce death in this context. Even though medical participation in capital punishment is a total violation of medical ethics.

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