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Appeals Court Rejects Ashcroft's Controls Over Oregon Assisted Suicide Law
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
May 26, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA--Disability rights advocates expressed disappointment, but not surprise, at an appeals court ruling Wednesday, that rejected U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's attempt to block Oregon's assisted suicide law.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said that Ashcroft overstepped his legal authority when he detailed a new drug enforcement policy designed to stop the state's voter-approved Death with Dignity Act. The court also called Ashcroft's directive "unlawful and unenforceable".

In a November 2001 memo to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Ashcroft interpreted the U.S. Controlled Substances Act as banning doctors from prescribing lethal doses of controlled drugs -- in this case barbiturates -- to patients seeking help in taking their own lives.

Wednesday's 2-1 ruling upheld an April 2002 decision by a U.S. District Judge who had ruled in favor of Oregon.

In its 58-page decision, the appellate court said that Ashcroft lacked "clear congressional authority" to exercise control over an area of the law -- such as medical treatment -- that is traditionally reserved for state authority; that he misinterpreted the Controlled Substances Act, which deals with drug abuse and prevention; and that any limit imposed on states regarding the practice of medicine should have come from the Department of Health and Human Services, not Ashcroft's Justice Department.

A dozen disability groups had filed a brief supporting the Attorney General's position. Advocates have opposed assisted suicide laws in Oregon, along with other U.S. states and other countries, noting that a number of people who are "assisted" in dying had disabilities, or mentioned a fear of becoming dependent on others as a reason for committing suicide. Some also point out that Oregon's Death with Dignity Act was approved at the same time the state began limiting health coverage.

"People with disabilities live and die on the front lines of the health care system and, to be succinct, we don't trust it," wrote Diane Coleman, JD, president of the disability rights group Not Dead Yet, in response to Wednesday's ruling.

"People with disabilities are already in daily contact with a callous health care system that is all too ready to deny necessary health services to save money," she explained. "Those national disability groups who filed with Not Dead Yet in this case have the shared and first hand experience of a system with almost no accountability that is all too often pressuring people with disabilities to get out of the way."

Since Oregon's law was enacted in 1998, at least 170 people have committed suicide under its guidelines. Disability rights advocates have been part of the movement to successfully block attempts to pass similar legislation in other states, including Hawaii and New Hampshire.

"The primary operative provisions of statutes to legalize assisted suicide are the immunities granted to physicians," wrote Coleman. "Our opponents like to say that this is about personal choice, but physicians are the actual players who decide who's eligible, who gets suicide prevention and who gets suicide assistance."

"This case should not be about outlawing one method of medical killing, it should be about denying physicians the blanket immunity gifted to them under the Oregon referendum. As usual, states rights are often a mask for government-sanctioned discrimination. In fact, Oregon's law is all about discrimination based on someone's health status, lethal discrimination."

"Our position is that it violates the ADA civil rights and equal protection principles, and should be overturned," she concluded.

The Justice Department said it was reviewing the decision to decide whether to challenge it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

State of Oregon v. Ashcroft (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit)
[Note: document is in PDF format -- requires free Adobe Acrobat Reader]


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