More MS news articles for Nov 2001

US federal judge moves to shield Oregon suicide law

By Bruce Olson

PORTLAND, Oregon, Nov 09 (Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday blocked US Attorney General John Ashcroft's effort to undo Oregon's first-in-the-nation assisted suicide law, after a hearing in Portland.

US District Court Judge Robert Jones ruled that the law should remain in effect and issued a temporary restraining order to protect it during legal challenges, which could take up to four years.

"It means the law stays, at least for now," said Kevin Neely, a spokesman for Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers, who had argued in favor of the suicide law. The next hearing was scheduled for Nov. 20.

The law has been in effect since 1997 and at least 70 people have killed themselves with lethal drugs since then. Oregon voters have approved the measure twice. It was upheld in court and approved by the Clinton Administration.

But Ashcroft issued an order undoing the law on Tuesday, saying doctor-assisted suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" under federal law, and supporting criminal penalties for doctors.

Myers, backed by public opinion in Oregon, argued that Ashcroft's opinion went beyond federal authority and infringed on states' sovereignty under the 10th Amendment of the US Constitution.

Ashcroft's decision, reflecting the conservative stand of the Bush administration and fulfilling a campaign promise from President George W. Bush, set off a storm of protest in Oregon.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber denounced the decision as an "unprecedented federal intrusion on Oregon's ability to regulate the practice of medicine."

Kitzhaber, a Democrat and a former doctor, said the Ashcroft decision would "deprive terminally ill Oregonians of a crucially important choice in how they manage their final days. Oregonians are satisfied we can responsibly implement physician aid in dying."

The author of the law, Barbara Coombs Lee, said assisted suicide had been used humanely and that Ashcroft's order sent "a terrible message to every doctor in the country."

In his opinion, Ashcroft sided with the US Drug Enforcement Administration, which had long argued that doctors who prescribe drugs under the law should lose their licenses.

President Clinton's Attorney General, Janet Reno, had rejected the DEA position, but Ashcroft said the DEA had been correct.

George Eighmey, head of Compassion in Dying, an Oregon advocacy group, said the ruling brought several people forward to seek advice on how to kill themselves. One said he wanted to shoot himself, another said he wanted to suffocate with a plastic bag.

Richard Holmes, 72, told a news conference that he was angered by the ruling, saying, "I want to be able to end my life on my terms." One of four patients to join the state's lawsuit, Holmes had asked for the option because of his terminal liver cancer.

Supporters of Ashcroft's decision said that the law encourages people to take their own life.

"You need to give them hope, not an overdose," Gregory Hamilton, a doctor who belongs to Physicians for Compassionate Care, which opposes the Oregon law.

Copyright © 2001 Reuters Limited