ACLU Hails Supreme Court Rejection of Attorney General’s Meddling in End-of-Life Decisions

Affiliate: ACLU of Oregon
January 17, 2006 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union today hailed the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling respecting the right of mentally competent, terminally ill persons to make end-of-life decisions in consultation with their doctors, and rejecting the federal government’s misguided effort to interfere with those decisions.

“The decision is especially sweet because Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion acknowledged the careful crafting of Oregon law,” said David Fidanque, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oregon. “The Court has accurately determined that intensely personal end-of-life decisions should be made by patients and families in consultation with their doctors, rather than by the government.”

In Gonzales v. Oregon, the Supreme Court ruled against the U.S. government’s use of the Controlled Substance Act to thwart physician-assisted suicide. The question before the Supreme Court was whether former Attorney General John Ashcroft exceeded his authority when he issued a directive that Oregon doctors who provide care to their patients under the Death With Dignity Act violate the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The directive, issued on November 9, 2001, prohibited the use of Schedule II narcotics for physician-assisted suicide and threatened physicians who prescribed the narcotics with criminal prosecution and revocation of their ability to write any prescriptions for substances regulated by the Controlled Substances Act.

The clear intent of the directive was to nullify the Death With Dignity Act that Oregon voters have twice approved, and to deprive qualified patients of access to the medication that doctors consider to be the safest and most effective means of ending one’s life. The Controlled Substances Act was clearly not enacted for these purposes, said the ACLU.

The issue of whether terminally ill patients have a constitutional right to make end-of-life decisions was not directly before the Court. However, as the ACLU noted in its friend-of-the court brief, previous Supreme Court opinions have properly recognized the important constitutional interests at stake when terminally ill patients are confronted with end-of-life decisions.

“Today’s decision firmly rejected the Administration’s effort to impose a political agenda on the practice of medicine,” said Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU’s national legal director. “The role of the Attorney General is to enforce the laws that Congress has written, not to rewrite the laws to suit the Administration’s own political objectives.”

A federal court in Oregon, along with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled in favor of Oregon’s law, saying that the Attorney General had exceeded his authority and misinterpreted the Controlled Substances Act. The Bush Administration petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, formerly titled Ashcroft v. Oregon, and now titled Gonzales v. Oregon.

The ACLU said it hopes that Congress will respect the spirit of the Court’s opinion and reject efforts to amend federal law to invalidate Oregon statute. A previous attempt by Congress failed to pass because of a threatened filibuster by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, Fidanque noted.

Attorneys on the brief included Shapiro; Charles Hinkle of Stoel Rives LLP as ACLU of Oregon’s cooperating attorney; and cooperating attorneys from the Washington, D.C. law firm of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP.

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