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Court rules govt. can't stop OR suicide law

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration overstepped its authority when it barred doctors from helping terminally ill patients die in the only state that allows physician-assisted suicide, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.

In a stinging defeat for the administration, the high court ruled on a 6-3 vote that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft impermissibly interpreted federal law in 2001 to bar distribution of controlled drugs to assist suicides, regardless of the Oregon law authorizing it.

"We conclude (the federal law's) prescription requirement does not authorize the attorney general to bar dispensing controlled substances for assisted suicide in the face of a state medical regime permitting such conduct," Justice Anthony Kennedy said for the majority.

The Oregon law, called the Death with Dignity Act, was twice approved by the state's voters. The only state law in the nation allowing doctor-assisted suicide, it has been used by more than 200 people since it took effect in 1997.

Under Oregon law, terminally ill patients who want to end their lives with a physician's help must get a certification from two doctors stating they are of sound mind and have fewer than six months to live. A prescription for lethal drugs is then written by the doctor, and the patients administer the drugs themselves.

Ashcroft's directive declared that assisting suicide was not "a legitimate medical purpose" under the Controlled Substances Act and that prescribing federally controlled drugs for that purpose therefore was against the federal law.

Oregon challenged Ashcroft's directive, and the ruling marked the third time the administration has lost. A federal judge and a U.S. appeals court previously ruled that Ashcroft had overstepped his authority.


The court's most conservative members -- Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas and new Chief Justice John Roberts, who was appointed by President George W. Bush -- dissented.

Supporters of the state law, such as Sen. Ron Wyden (news, bio, voting record), a Democrat from Oregon, praised the ruling. He vowed to fight any congressional attempts to overturn the decision.

"The court's decision has stopped, for now, the administration's attempts to wrest control of decisions rightfully left to the states and individuals," Wyden said.

Supporters of the administration, like Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal group, said the ruling likely will lead to more states adopting assisted suicide laws.

"This is a disturbing and dangerous decision that can only lessen the value of protecting human life," he said.

Ashcroft reversed the policy adopted by his predecessor Janet Reno, who was attorney general during the Clinton administration. Conservative lawmakers and groups had opposed Reno's decision.

The closely watched case pitted the federal government's power to interpret and enforce the nation's drug laws versus the traditional authority of a state to regulate doctors and the practice of medicine.

Bush administration attorneys argued that federal drug law trumped the Oregon law on the issue of whether doctors may prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients.

But Kennedy, joined by another moderate conservative, retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and the court's four most liberal members, rejected the government's arguments.

Kennedy said the authority claimed by Ashcroft was "both beyond his expertise and incongruous with the statutory purposes and design."

He said in the 28-page opinion that the federal law regulated medical practice only to bar doctors from using their prescription-writing powers as a way to engage in illicit drug dealing and trafficking.

Scalia said in his dissent that he would uphold the administration's position. "If the term 'legitimate medical purpose' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death," he said.



Glad to see the U.S. Supreme Court putting the Bush administration back in line. :tu:

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I hope someday that the people in the states get to choose how they should be governed without the federal government having to force their opinion on the matter.

Assisten suicide, medical marajuana and the like are programs that people supported and voted into power, only to have the feds come in and say otherwise.

Let people have the say in their government as it was designed to be, not a single goverment sticking their nose in every single issue that should be left to the people in states.

I happen to believe that people should have the right to choose when they die, if pain and suffering is the only thing left for a person with a terminal disease, let them die in peace and with some degree of dignity.

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I agree. I've seen terminal cancer firsthand. It's both arrogant and callous for the federal government to tell people that they have to live with unbearable pain until it kills them, if the person wishes to go ahead and end thier life.

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It seems the Supreme Court agrees.

And I for one, am glad they did so...

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