ACLU Urges Supreme Court to Reject Attorney General's Meddling in End-of-Life Decisions

Affiliate: ACLU of Oregon
October 5, 2005 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union today urged the Supreme Court to respect the right of mentally competent, terminally ill persons to make end-of-life decisions in consultation with their doctors, and to reject the federal government’s misguided effort to interfere with those decisions.

“Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act respects the right of Oregonians to make difficult and intensely personal end-of-life decisions in carefully limited circumstances,” said David Fidanque, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oregon. “The statute has been in effect for eight years,” Fidanque added, “and there is no evidence of abuse.”

The question before the Supreme Court today is 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.

Its clear intent is 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.

The issue of whether terminally ill patients have a constitutional right to make end-of-life decisions is not directly before the Court. However, as the ACLU notes 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.

“John Ashcroft plainly chose to ignore those constitutional interests, but there is no indication that Congress shared those sentiments when it adopted the Controlled Substances Act,” said Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU’s national legal director.

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.

Attorneys on the brief include 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.

The ACLU’s amicus brief is available online here

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