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Editorial: The Assisted-Suicide Decision

New York Times, January 19, 2006

The Supreme Court smacked former Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Bush administration when it ruled 6 to 3 that the Justice Department had gone beyond its authority in trying to undermine an assisted-suicide law in Oregon. The only disquieting note was that the new chief justice, John Roberts Jr., who had assured senators that he believed people had "the right to be let alone," nevertheless joined the dissenters in arguing that the federal government had the power to block Oregon's pioneering effort to let terminally ill patients end their own lives humanely.

The decision was notable because it rejected Mr. Ashcroft's attempt to impose his religiously conservative ideology on a state whose voters had decided differently. Oregon's law allowing physician-assisted suicide was approved narrowly in 1994 and reaffirmed by a thumping 60 to 40 percent vote three years later. Congressional conservatives, including Mr. Ashcroft when he was a senator, failed to push through a federal law to overturn it.

So when Mr. Ashcroft became attorney general in 2001, he simply declared that the federal Controlled Substances Act gave him the authority to prevent doctors from prescribing lethal drugs for the purpose of suicide. That position had been rejected by the Clinton administration, and Mr. Ashcroft issued his own directive without consulting Oregon or apparently anyone else outside his own department. His successor, Alberto Gonzales, embraced this power grab.

The Supreme Court concluded that Mr. Ashcroft had overreached when he ruled that physician-assisted suicide was not a "legitimate medical purpose" that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs under the Controlled Substances Act. That act was intended to thwart drug abuse and trafficking, not to punish doctors who prescribed medicines in accord with state law. The majority found that Congress had not intended to pre-empt the state regulation of medical practice or to give a single executive branch officer the power to define standards of medical practice.

Congressional conservatives are already vowing to push through a law barring assisted suicide. After the sorry display of pandering during the Terri Schiavo tragedy, no one can bet that they won't succeed this time. But our own sense is that Oregon has acted with exquisite care by requiring that two doctors agree that a patient is likely to die within six months, and is well informed and acting voluntarily, before lethal drugs can be prescribed. Congress would be wise not to meddle in a sensitive issue that Oregon has clearly studied far more closely.

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