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Federal Judge Stops Effort to Overturn Suicide Law

New York Times, November 9, 2001


PORTLAND, Ore., Nov. 8 – Siding with the State of Oregon, the only state to legalize assisted suicide, a federal judge issued an order here today that would temporarily block Attorney General John Ashcroft’s move earlier this week to overturn the law.

The judge, Robert E. Jones of Federal District Court, granted a temporary restraining order, sought by the Oregon attorney general, Hardy Myers, and several terminally ill people as well as organizations in favor of the law. The order will be in effect until Nov. 20., and unless it is overturned by a higher court, the order means that doctors in the state may continue to prescribe lethal medications under the terms of the law.

Under the state’s so-called Death with Dignity Act, which was passed by voters in 1994 and took effect in 1997 after legal challenges, a terminally ill patient may take the lethal drugs if two doctors agree that the person has less than six months to live and is mentally competent to make the decision to end his life. At least 70 people have ended their lives this way in Oregon under the law.

On Tuesday, Mr. Ashcroft, declaring that assisted suicide is not a “legitimate medical purpose” for prescribing or dispensing medication, authorized federal drug agents to revoke the license of any doctor acting under terms of the law here, who prescribed lethal drugs for their patients. His action reversed a Clinton administration policy that allowed the Oregon law to stand.

But in the ruling today, issued after a brief hearing, Judge Jones said that the state law should remain in effect, at least temporarily, while he heard the broader challenge being mounted by the state and at least four terminally ill patients, who contend that Mr. Ashcroft’s directive amounts to excessive intrusion into Oregon’s right to regulate medicine.

“There is no showing that the U.S. would be irreparably impaired by a temporary stay of the attorney general’s action,” Judge Jones said in his ruling, referring to the Ashcroft directive.

The ruling came late in the day, and federal attorneys are considering whether to appeal it. The order was hailed by several of the patients and by Compassion in Dying and Oregon Death with Dignity, two organizations that have worked to promote the right to assisted suicide.