Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Top court seems closely divided on suicide law


Top court seems closely divided on suicide law

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court seemed closely split on Wednesday on whether the Bush administration can stop doctors from helping terminally ill patients take their own lives under the nation's only physician-assisted suicide law.

During arguments, the justices sharply questioned both sides on whether then-Attorney General John Ashcroft had the power under federal law in 2001 to bar distribution of controlled drugs to assist suicides, regardless of state law.

The Oregon law, called the Death with Dignity Act, was twice approved by the state's voters. The only state law in the country allowing physician-assisted suicide, it has been used by 208 people since it took effect in 1997.

It was the first major case that new Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative jurist named by President George W. Bush, has heard since his confirmation late last week.

Several justices appeared sympathetic to Oregon's arguments that regulation of doctors and medicine has traditionally been left to the states rather than the federal government.

But other justices questioned how far a state could go and whether it could decide if doctors can prescribe morphine for depression or steroids for body building.

Roberts asked whether such state decisions would undermine the effectiveness and uniformity of the federal law.

Under Oregon law, terminally ill patients must get a certification from two doctors stating they are of sound mind and have less than six months to live. A prescription for lethal drugs is then written by the doctor, and the patients administer the drugs themselves.

Ashcroft's directive declared that assisting suicide was not a legitimate medical purpose under the Controlled Substances Act and that prescribing federally controlled drugs for that purpose was against the federal law.

He reversed the policy adopted by his predecessor, Attorney General Janet Reno, during the Clinton administration. Conservative lawmakers and groups opposed Reno's decision.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who often casts the decisive vote on the divided court and often supports the states, questioned the federal government's argument.

She asked the hypothetical question of whether an attorney general who opposed the death penalty could take a similar position and decide physicians could not prescribe drugs for lethal injections of death row inmates.


"The practice of medicine by physicians is an area traditionally regulated by the states, it is not?" O'Connor asked Solicitor General Paul Clement, the administration's top courtroom lawyer.

It is not known whether O'Connor will still be on the court when it rules. She has said she will retire when her successor is confirmed by the Senate. Bush has chosen White House counsel Harriet Miers for O'Connor's seat.

Justice David Souter said that 90 years of federal regulation have been aimed at stopping drug dealing and drug abuse. He described it as a "bizarre result" to suddenly give the attorney general effectively sole authority over whether a state may authorize physician-assisted suicide.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked whether the federal government had abandoned the position it took in a 1997 case that assisted suicide was a matter for the states to decide.

Besides Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia also seemed skeptical of the state's position. "I think that assisted suicide would have been just as unthinkable at the time this (the federal law) was enacted as prescribing cocaine for recreational use," Scalia said.

Justice Stephen Breyer asked whether states could make marijuana or morphine legal. "Suppose I think the attorney general has the power to stop states from gutting the act," he said. Other justices asked whether states could allow doctors to prescribe steroids for body building.

A ruling is expected by the middle of next year.