The Supreme Court said Tuesday it will hear a challenge to the nation's only assisted suicide law, taking up the Bush administration's appeal to stop doctors from helping terminally ill patients die more quickly.
Justices will review a lower court ruling that said the U.S. government cannot sanction or hold doctors criminally liable for prescribing overdoses under Oregon's voter-approved Death with Dignity Act. Since 1998, more than 170 people — most with cancer — have used the law to end their lives.
Arguments will be heard in the court's next term, beginning in October.
Oregon officials immediately decried the Supreme Court's move as trampling on state's rights.
"I am disappointed," said Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski. "The people of Oregon have approved Oregon's Death with Dignity Act not once, but twice and the lower courts have upheld Oregon's law not once, but twice."
But Physicians for Compassionate Care, a group that opposes assisted suicide, said the appeal is necessary to prevented the unwarranted killing of vulnerable patients.
"We don't believe that any state should be permitted to unilaterally exempt itself from federal law forbidding the misuse of federally controlled substances to overdose vulnerable patients," said Dr. Kenneth Stevens, spokesman for the group.
Former Attorney General John Ashcroft filed the appeal last November, on the day his resignation was announced by the White House. He argued that physician-assisted suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" and that doctors take an oath to heal patients, not help them die.
Oregon lawyers counter that regulation of doctors generally has been the sole responsibility of states. The U.S. attorney general has no authority under the federal Controlled Substances Act to punish doctors because Congress intended the law only to prevent illegal drug trafficking, they say.
A panel of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Oregon last May.
"The attorney general's unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes with the democratic debate about physician-assisted suicide," wrote Judge Richard Tallman in the 2-1 opinion.
By agreeing to hear the Bush administration appeal, the Supreme Court again wades into the murky area of assisted suicide.
In 1997, the same justices now on the court unanimously ruled that individuals had no constitutional right to die, upholding state bans on physician-assisted suicide. However, in an opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the court suggested individual states could decide whether to permit or ban the practice.
The issue now before the high court is whether Congress could step in to prohibit assisted suicide if a state chose to allow it, and, if so, whether the federal Controlled Substances Act authorizes the Justice Department to punish the doctors.
Oregon voters approved the law in 1994 and overwhelmingly affirmed it three years later when it was returned to the ballot following a failed legal challenge that stalled its implementation.
The law allows terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to request a lethal dose of drugs. Two doctors must confirm the diagnosis and determine the patient to be mentally competent to make the request.
The Oregon challenge is the second right-to-die case to come before the Supreme Court this year. Last month, justices rejected a legal challenge to Florida's "Terri's Law," a measure to keep Terri Schiavo, who is severely brain-damaged, on life support over the objections of her husband.
Schiavo, whose legal fight is continuing, was scheduled to be taken off life support as early as Tuesday.
In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that terminally ill people may refuse treatment that would otherwise keep them alive, but declined in the 1997 case to extend that constitutional right to obtaining medication that would put them to death.
The case is Gonzales v. Oregon, 04-623.
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