High Court to Review Assisted Suicide Law
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High Court to Review Assisted Suicide Law

AP | February 22, 2005

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it will hear a challenge to the nation's only assisted suicide law, taking up a case embracing the Bush administration's appeal to stop doctors from helping terminally ill patients die more quickly.

Justices will review a lower court ruling that said the U.S. government cannot sanction or hold doctors criminally liable for prescribing overdoses under Oregon's voter-approved Death with Dignity Act. Since 1998, more than 170 people - most with cancer - have used the law to end their lives.

Arguments will be heard in the court's next term, which begins in October.

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft filed the appeal last November, on the day his resignation was announced by the White House, arguing that physician-assisted suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" and that doctors take an oath to heal patients, not help them die.

Oregon countered by saying that regulation of doctors generally has been the sole responsibility of the states. Ashcroft has no authority under the federal Controlled Substances Act to punish doctors because Congress intended the law only to prevent illegal drug trafficking, the state argued.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Oregon last May.

"The attorney general's unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes with the democratic debate about physician-assisted suicide," wrote Judge Richard Tallman in the 2-1 opinion.

The Oregon challenge is the second right-to-die case to come before the Supreme Court this year. Last month, justices rejected Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's appeal to keep Terri Schiavo, who is severely brain-damaged, on life support over the objections of her husband.

Schiavo, whose legal fight is continuing, was scheduled to be taken off life support as early as Tuesday.

In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that terminally ill people may refuse treatment that would otherwise keep them alive, but declined in the 1997 case to extend that constitutional right to obtaining medication that would put them to death.

The case is Gonzales v. Oregon, 04-623.

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