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Ashcroft’s Meddling

Boston Globe Editorial, Nov 10, 2001

IN TWO STATEWIDE ballot initiatives, Oregonians voted overwhelmingly to let terminally ill patients arrange for physician-assisted suicide. For four years the state’s residents have been able to avail themselves of this option in a legally prescribed and regulated way. US Attorney General John Ashcroft has no business trying to overturn the voters’ will by sending federal drug agents after Oregon doctors who prescribe drugs to assist suicides.

Since the law went into effect, 70 patients are known by officials to have arranged their own deaths. The law requires two doctors to agree that the patient has less than six months to live, is capable of making health care decisions, and has voluntarily chosen to die. The patient’s doctor can prescribe a lethal drug dose but cannot administer it.

ÊReligious conservatives of many different faiths have opposed the law as an interference with divine will. After failing to stop it at the Oregon ballot box, they tried to get Congress to undo it. Two years ago the state House of Representives voted to do so, but the measure was never taken up by the Senate.

Now Ashcroft has instructed the Drug Enforcement Administration to seek to revoke the license of any Oregon doctor who prescribes controlled substances to assist a patient’s suicide. Oregon won a temporary restraining order through Nov. 20 from a federal judge, but the state’s doctors now face the specter of DEA agents second-guessing their intent whenever they prescribe certain drugs.

Whatever the outcome of the legal fight Ashcroft has ignited, he will have signaled to religious conservatives that their interests have not been ignored. Many were displeased with the president’s decision permitting federal support for even a limited form of stem-cell research earlier this year. The Ashcroft order will win points in that camp, even though it flies in the face of Bush administration rhetoric in favor of states’ rights and against federal intrusion.

ÊIn 1997 the Supreme Court addressed the issue of physician-assisted suicide in a way that Ashcroft should examine. While the court said Americans have no constitutional right to assisted suicide and upheld bans in two states against it, the justices affirmed the right of states to legalize it. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor referred to the value of the ”laboratory of the states” in letting them try new approaches to complex problems.

Oregon’s experience indicates that assisted suicide is a choice few individuals make, and only after due deliberation. The Oregon model is more humane than the freelance actions of a Jack Kevorkian and more transparent than the informal decisions of doctors to increase morphine doses gradually for terminally ill patients. Ashcroft should keep his hands off Oregon’s experiment.