Last week, DRCNet reported on Attorney General John Ashcroft's move against Oregon's assisted suicide law, which allows physicians to prescribe but not administer lethal drugs to terminal patients who have met rigorous screening criteria (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/210.html#deaoregon). Ashcroft, an ardent religious conservative, ordered the Drug Enforcement Administration to suspend or revoke the licenses of physicians who prescribe drugs for assisted suicide. The move provoked an immediate outcry from Oregon and beyond, and state officials moved swiftly to block the move in the federal courts. That move has succeeded, at least temporarily.
In his memorandum ordering the policy change, Ashcroft wrote that using federally controlled substances for physician-assisted suicide is not "a legitimate medical purpose." But on November 9, federal district court Judge Robert E. Jones granted a temporary restraining order sought by Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers, several terminally ill patients affected by the move and groups who support the Oregon law. The order is good only until next week, and unless and until it is overturned by a higher court, doctors in Oregon will continue to be able to prescribe lethal drugs under Oregon's assisted suicide law.
"I am not in a position at this juncture to make any prediction as to the ultimate outcome of this case," Jones told the courtroom. "I feel either side could prevail."
Justice Department lawyers had argued that grave harm would result if Jones issued the temporary order allowing assisted suicide prescriptions to continue, but Jones retorted that the matter could not be so urgent if it was based on a legal memo from June 29. "July passed. August passed. September and October passed and we're approaching the second week in November and suddenly the Attorney General is issuing an edict for immediate enforcement," Jones scoffed.
Assistant US Attorney Bill Howard, addressing the court on a speaker phone from Washington, DC, argued that great harm would come from allowing the resumption of that nation's only assisted suicide law.
"What it comes down to is whether those patients will continue living while the court considers the questions that have been put before it," Howard argued. Attempting to decide their fate, Howard continued, "Those individuals should continue living. Life is good."
Tell that to plaintiff Richard Holmes, a 72-year-old from Portland with terminal colon cancer and "substantial pain," according to Compassion in Dying attorney Nicholas van Aelstyn. Holmes was in the middle of the mandatory 15-day waiting period for his life-ending drugs when Ashcroft issued his order. Or tell it to Karl Stansell, 67, of Medford, whose terminal throat cancer "causes him agony when he eats," van Aelstyn told the court. Stansell, too, was in the waiting period and lost control over his death to Ashcroft's DEA.
This battle will continue, as will medical skirmishes in California, as voters in both states confront the federal government.