Attorney General Attacks Assisted Suicide

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Attorney General John Ashcroft ruled in early November, 2001 that doctors who prescribe drugs with the deliberate intention of causing the death of the patient may lose their drug licenses.

In 1997 Oregon passed a law allowing doctors to participate in “assisted suicide”. (In the other 49 states, it is illegal for anyone, including a doctor, to help someone commit suicide.) But the federal Drug Enforcement Agency quickly announced that regardless of Oregon law, doctors and pharmacists still had to be licensed by the DEA, and the DEA would revoke the license of anyone who violated federal laws. The Controlled Substances Act, passed by Congress to fight drug abuse, says that certain drugs can only be prescribed for “legitimate medical purposes”, and killing someone is not a “legitimate medical purpose”. But then-Attorney General Janet Reno overruled the DEA.

Two days after Ashcroft reversed Reno’s decision, a Federal district court put this ruling on hold. He gave both sides five months to prepare legal arguments. The key legal argument offered against Ashcroft’s ruling is that the federal government does not have the authority to interfere with state laws regarding the practice of medicine. This puts pro-choice advocates in the paradoxical position of insisting that the states, and not the federal government, have the authority to regulate medical practice when it comes to assisted suicide; but the federal government, and not the states, have the authority to regulate medical practice when it comes to abortion.

Opponents of Ashcroft’s decision have made public statements that this will make doctors afraid to prescribe painkillers, because large doses of painkillers can hasten death, and so many patients will needlessly suffer. But Mr Ashcroft anticipated this objection, and the text of his decision specifically says that it does not apply to drugs prescribed for the purpose of alleviating pain, regardless of the side effects. The American Medical Association supported Ashcroft, saying “Today’s action makes a strong statement against physician-assisted suicide without hampering a physician’s ability to aggressively relieve patient pain.”

There have been 70 reported assisted suicides since the Oregon law took effect, and all of these were done with federally regulated drugs.

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Posted 18 Jan 2002.

Copyright 2001 by Greene County Right to Life
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