Judge extends order blocking federal bid to dismantle Oregon's assisted-suicide law

Tuesday, November 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ A federal judge extended a court order Tuesday that blocks an attempt by Attorney General John Ashcroft to dismantle Oregon's one-of-a-kind law allowing physician-assisted suicides.

U.S. District Judge Robert Jones extended his Nov. 8 temporary restraining order and gave the state and the Justice Department up to five months to prepare their arguments.

The judge stressed that his order ``nullifies giving any legal effect'' to Ashcroft's directive _ in other words, doctors should not fear legal repercussions if they follow the Oregon law.

The state has asked Jones to permanently block Ashcroft's Nov. 6 order that prohibited doctors from prescribing lethal doses of federally controlled drugs to terminally ill patients. The order effectively dismantled the voter-approved law.

At least 70 people have used the law since it took effect, according to state health officials. All have done so with a federally controlled drug.

During a four-hour hearing, Justice Department attorneys repeatedly argued that Oregon does not have the right to be an exception to federal drug laws.

But Steve Bushong, an Oregon assistant attorney general, argued that Ashcroft's order exceeded powers given to him by Congress.

In his directive, Ashcroft said ``prescribing, dispensing, or administering federally controlled substances to assist suicide'' violates the Controlled Substances Act, passed by Congress in 1970 as part of the nation's war on drug use.

Bushong argued that by applying the act to physicians who help terminally ill patients hasten their deaths, Ashcroft was interpreting the CSA in a way that was not intended by Congress.

Under Oregon's Death with Dignity Law, doctors may provide _ but not administer _ a lethal prescription to terminally ill adult state residents. It requires two doctors to agree the patient has less than six months to live, has voluntarily chosen to die and is capable of making health care decisions.

The measure was approved by voters in 1994, survived legal challenges, and was re-approved in a 1997 referendum by a wide margin.

Ashcroft's order reversed a 1998 order by his predecessor, Janet Reno. The state accused him of stripping Oregon's right to govern the practice of medicine.

Many Oregon doctors have been reluctant to assist with suicides because of Ashcroft's order, said Brad Wright, who is with Compassion in Dying, a group that supports physician-assisted suicide.

Included in court documents are statements by four terminally ill patients who have joined the state in its lawsuit against Ashcroft.

One plaintiff, 68-year-old Karl Stansell, has terminal throat cancer. He's received chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and is being fed through a feeding tube. His doctors have told him he has less than six months to live as the cancer spreads through his body.

``Eventually I will be unable to swallow anything and will die in agony,'' Stansell said.