PORTLAND, Ore., April 17 (UPI) -- An attempt by Attorney General John Ashcroft to torpedo a voter-approved, assisted-suicide law in Oregon was rejected Wednesday by a federal judge who ruled that the Justice Department did not have the authority to overturn the statute.
U.S. District Judge Robert Jones said in a written ruling that Ashcroft overstepped his bounds last November when he declared that the 1994 law allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to dying patients was not an accepted medical practice.
"Physicians, pharmacists and other healthcare providers in Oregon shall not be subject to criminal prosecution, professional disciplinary proceedings or any other administrative proceedings for any actions taken in compliance with the Oregon Death with Dignity Act," Jones said in his order granting a permanent injunction against Ashcroft, Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Asa Hutchinson, and Kenneth W. Magee, a top DEA enforcement official.
Voters approved the Oregon Death with Dignity Act in 1994 and again in 1997 following an unsuccessful legal challenge. The statute allows doctors to supply the means for mentally competent -- but physically suffering patients whom doctors have given six months to live -- to take their own lives.
"We are gratified and relieved that the people of Oregon will continue to have the humane option of hastened death that has been implemented so safely for four years under the state's Death With Dignity law," said Estelle Rogers, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center.
While seen by proponents as a humane way of ending suffering, the law alarmed right-to-life advocates who instead viewed it as institutionalizing suicide and violating the basic tenants of medicine.
Jan LaRue of the Family Research Center in Washington said the flaw in the law's logic could be seen in the provision that allows a medical professional to provide the deadly drugs, but leaves the dirty work of administering them to the patients' family.
"Drugs are for curing, not killing," LaRue said in a statement. "If prescribing deadly drugs is practicing medicine, why is it that the ODDA doesn't permit doctors to inject the 'medicine'?"
Ashcroft had issued an order Nov. 6 declaring the statute null and void because it involved the prescribing of drugs at unacceptable levels, which made the law a violation of DEA controlled substances laws.
"Writing prescriptions for deadly doses of drugs is not and never has been within the usual course of professional practice," LaRue said. "That's why the attorney general is correct; it is not a legitimate medical practice, and a physician's registration under the Controlled Substances Act should be revoked for violating the law."
Judge Jones, however, agreed with the state of Oregon's contention that federal drug laws were meant to prevent drug trafficking, and that the regulation of doctors was a matter under the control of the state.
He said that the idea of using the Controlled Substance Act to prevent doctors from writing prescriptions for suicides had been proposed to the DEA in 1997 by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., but then-Attorney General Janet Reno had decided that such a move would be beyond the law's scope.
Jones also declared in the 30-page opinion that Ashcroft had issued his Nov. 6 order without the appropriate amount of discussion and "essentially kept his own counsel."
Jones also said that Ashcroft had improperly attempted to "stifle" the debate over assisted suicide taking place in other states, which he said in his opinion had been encouraged in a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that refused to strike down a similar law in the state of Washington.
"The citizens of Oregon, through their democratic initiative process, have chosen to resolve the moral, legal and ethical debate on physician-assisted suicide for themselves -- not once, but twice -- in favor of the Oregon Act," he wrote.
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)