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Oregon files lawsuit against U.S. government over assisted suicide

By BRAD CAIN, The Associated Press, 11/7/01

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The state of Oregon sued the U.S. government on Wednesday over a federal directive that essentially blocks the state’s assisted-suicide law.

Attorney General Hardy Myers filed motions in U.S. District Court seeking to temporarily prevent the federal government from implementing a new order barring doctors from prescribing federally controlled substances to hasten the deaths of terminally ill patients.

Myers also filed a lawsuit challenging the authority of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to limit the practice of medicine in Oregon by attempting to bar physician-assisted suicides.

“Ultimately, what we’re seeking to do is waylay the federal government from illegally interfering in the practice of medicine in Oregon,” said Kevin Neely, spokesman for Attorney General Hardy Myers, who filed the legal papers.

Ashcroft on Tuesday dealt what could be a fatal blow to the country’s only law permitting assisted suicides by serving notice on Oregon doctors that their licenses to prescribe federally controlled drugs will be revoked if they participate in Oregon’s Death with Dignity law.

Ashcroft’s order effectively puts the state’s law on hold because a doctor would have to be willing to sacrifice his or her right to prescribe federally controlled medicines, which doctors say are essential for their work.

“Fundamentally, the actions of the U.S. attorney general take away the right of the state to govern the practice of medicine,” Neely said.

George Eighmey, executive director of a group that supports assisted suicide, said doctors have called him seeking advice about whether they should continue filling prescriptions for the lethal barbiturates.

He said he has recommended they stop doing that because of Ashcroft’s directive.

Eighmey also said that since Ashcroft’s decision, terminally ill patients have called him expressing desperation because they can no longer get the barbiturates through physicians.

One patient said he might shoot himself if the Ashcroft directive was upheld by the courts and another asked for instructions on how to suffocate himself using a plastic bag, said Eighmey, executive director of George Eighmey, of Compassion in Dying.

At least 70 terminally ill people have ended their lives since the Oregon law took effect in 1997, according to the Oregon Health Division. All have done so with a federally controlled substance such as a barbiturate.

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 able to make health care decisions.