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Assisted suicide ruling upheld by US court

From: The Financial Times (january 17th, 2006)
By Patti Waldmeir in Washington

In a stinging rebuke to the Bush administration, the US Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the US attorney-general cannot use federal drug laws to try to stop the right-to-die movement.

The majority in the 6-3 ruling said the federal government cannot use the federal Controlled Substances Act to stop doctors from prescribing drugs to help terminally ill patients die. The ruling is a victory for advocates of physician-assisted suicide, since it will allow individual states to legalise the practice without running into problems under federal drug laws.

The case tested America’s first such law, the state of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, which is seen as a model for other states. The majority said a Bush administration attorney general had overstepped his authority by trying to quash that law in 2001.

The issue before the court was one of the toughest of the American culture wars: how much power does the federal government have to interfere with states that want to experiment with end-of-life care? Last year, the court ruled against a California end-of-life experiment involving the use of medical marijuana to ease the pain of terminal patients. Legal experts say the ruling, which upheld a similar experiment using different drugs, raises more questions than it answers about where the court stands on this issue.

The case pitted the administration’s power to interpret federal drug law against the traditional power of states to regulate the practice of medicine. Traditionally, politically conservative justices support states’ rights and liberal ones support federal power – but Tuesday the lineup was reversed, probably because the social issue involved, assisted suicide, divides justices along exactly opposite lines.

Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority that the Bush administration position would “effect a radical shift of authority from the states to the federal government to define general standards of medical practice in every locality”. He was joined by four liberal justices and Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor, who is expected soon to leave the court and be replaced by Judge Samuel Alito. His vote would not have changed the outcome of this case.

But the new Chief Justice, John Roberts, dissented, joining a sharply worded dissent written by Justice Antonin Scalia, which accused the majority of imposing its own values on the practice of medicine by writing a new definition of the phrase “legitimate medical purpose” to include assisted suicide. The case turned on the definition of this phrase under federal drug law.

“If the term ‘legitimate medical purpose’ has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death,” Justice Scalia wrote.