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  Ashcroft to Pursue Suicide Doctors

By Katherine Pfleger
Associated Press Writer
Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2001; 7:33 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON –– Attorney General John Ashcroft sought Tuesday to override the nation's only law allowing assisted suicide, declaring that taking the life of a terminally ill patient is not a "legitimate medical purpose" for federally controlled drugs.

Doctors who use such drugs to help patients die, as permitted under the Oregon law, face suspension or revocation of their licenses to prescribe federally controlled drugs, Ashcroft said in a letter to Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson.

The order does not call for criminal prosecution of doctors. And it does stipulate that pain management is a valid medical use of controlled substances.

Still, right-to-die groups and other supporters of the Oregon law were angry that Ashcroft reversed the June 1998 order by his predecessor, Janet Reno, who prohibited federal drug agents from moving against doctors who use Oregon's law.

"Given everything that the country is going through right now, with the country trying to respond to anthrax, why John Ashcroft picked this moment to inject this divisive issue into the public debate is just beyond me," said Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat.

A spokesman for the Oregon attorney general's office said the state will file motions in U.S. District Court in Portland on Wednesday seeking to block the order.

But some religious groups and anti-abortion organizations hailed the move by Ashcroft, whose nomination as attorney general nearly was scuttled by critics who said his strong conservative views would color his judgment.

"We felt that Reno had set up a very improper and bizarre situation that had the act of killing patients with federal substances illegal in 49 states" but not in Oregon, said David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee.

White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said President Bush had made it clear he opposed Oregon's law. "The president believes we must value life and protect the sanctity of life at all stages," Lisaius said.

At least 70 terminally ill people have ended their lives since the Oregon law took effect in 1997, according to the Oregon Health Division. All have done so with a federally controlled substance such as a barbiturate.

Under the law, doctors may provide – but not administer – a lethal prescription to terminally ill adult state residents. It requires that two doctors agree the patient has less than six months to live, has voluntarily chosen to die and is able to make health care decisions.

Some doctors worried that a side effect of Ashcroft's decision could be that physicians and other medical professionals will be less likely to provide adequate pain relief to very ill patients.

"If a physician is accused of misusing drugs, he's essentially under an intense degree of investigation," Oregon Medical Association Executive Director Robert Dernedde said. "Appropriate pain management is going to be compromised."

Dernedde also was concerned that doctor-patient confidentiality could be compromised as DEA agents sought to carry out the order. "We don't need to have federal officials pawing through medical records looking for what they might view as nonmedical," he said.

Oregon Death With Dignity and other proponents of the law complained the federal government was trampling on a states-rights issue. Oregon voters have twice approved referendums to allow physician-assisted suicides.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Ashcroft's order "is undoing Oregon's popular will in the most undemocratic manner possible. ... Americans in every corner of the nation are going to suffer needlessly."

But his Republican counterpart, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said the government should not condone the taking of life. "This is a matter of principle, not a matter of politics," Smith said.

Smith said the Bush administration has indicated it may offer guidelines for using federally controlled substances for pain management.

Ashcroft based his decision on a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in May that said there was no exception in federal drug laws for the medical use of marijuana to ease pain from cancer, AIDS and other illnesses.

The court didn't change state laws allowing patients to use marijuana for medical reasons, but made the drug harder to obtain by denying patients the right to claim "medical necessity" as a reason to circumvent a 1970 law regulating controlled substances.

When Reno issued her order in 1998, she said she found no evidence the Controlled Substances Act law was intended to displace states as the primary regulators of the medical profession or override a state's authority determine of what constitutes a legitimate medical practice.


Associated Press writer Karen Gullo contributed to this report.


On the Net:

Justice Department:

Death With Dignity:

Oregon Health Division:

National Right to Life Committee:

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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