New York Times, November 9, 2001
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon doctors can prescribe lethal medicines again to terminally ill patients who want to end their lives now that a judge has temporarily blocked a federal order that had essentially shut down the state’s unique assisted-suicide law.
U.S. District Judge Robert Jones granted a temporary restraining order Thursday barring U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s directive, which had said Oregon doctors who use the assisted-suicide law would lose their licenses to prescribe federally controlled drugs.
Jones’ ruling was a victory for Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers, who had teamed up with several terminally ill patients to bring the suit. The order is effective until Nov. 20, when Jones has scheduled another hearing.
In seeking to block Ashcroft’s move, the state argued that the federal government does not have the right to dictate its policies on medical practices. Assistant U.S. Attorney William Howard disagreed, saying the federal government’s interest in preserving life takes precedence over Oregon’s Death with Dignity law.
Physicians for Compassionate Care, an organization that opposes assisted suicide, criticized Jones’ ruling.
“Nobody who’s in distress and despair should have a doctor respond to that with an overdose,” said Dr. Gregory Hamilton, spokesman for the group. “People are going to keep getting assisted suicide instead of the hope and care they deserve.”
Under the law, doctors may provide — but not administer — a lethal prescription to terminally ill adult state residents. It requires that two doctors agree the patient has less than six months to live, has voluntarily chosen to die and is capable of making health care decisions.
The measure survived legal challenges after being approved in 1994 and later re-approved by a wide margin in 1997. At least 70 people have used the law since it took effect, according to the state’s Health Services office. All have done so with a federally controlled drug.
But despite the restraining order issued Thursday, it’s not clear how many doctors will now prescribe lethal doses: Many don’t want to risk jeopardizing their careers if Ashcroft’s directive is ultimately upheld.
“I’m going to get some legal advice about whether it would be safe to proceed and then decide,” said Dr. Peter Rasmussen, a Salem cancer specialist who joined Myers’s suit.
Eli Stutsman, Rasmussen’s attorney, said that even with Thursday’s ruling, the Ashcroft directive will “cause a chilling effect on good patient care” in Oregon and across the nation because doctors might be afraid to prescribe strong pain medications. And Rasmussen said he worries that during the battle over the Oregon law, patients will try to find other ways to end their lives.
“I’ve already had inquiries about alternate ways to get the medication — for example going down to Mexico, or to Canada to get it. And of course I’ve discouraged that,” he said. “I sincerely hope that no physician goes underground, but some patients will want to.”