Assisted Suicide


Background: On November 6, 2001, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memorandum in which he determined that assisting suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" for prescribing, dispensing, or administering federally controlled substances. This applied to any state, including Oregon, which has had a physician-assisted suicide law in effect since 1997. This memorandum overturned the June 5, 1998 opinion issued by then-Attorney General Janet Reno.

Judicial: On November 7, 2001, the state of Oregon filed a lawsuit challenging the authority of U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft to issue his memorandum.

U.S. District Court Injunction: On April 17, 2002, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones issued a permanent injunction enjoining enforcement.

Ninth Circuit Appeals: On May 26, 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled 2-1 that in issuing his directive Attorney General Ashcroft exceeded his authority and that the injunction by Judge Jones is continued in force. In his dissent, Judge Wallace argued that nothing in the Controlled Substances Act or legislative history “authorizes the majority to deny deference to the Ashcroft Directive.” On July 12, 2004, the federal government appealed the decision, petitioning for panel rehearing and for rehearing by the entire Ninth Circuit court of appeals (en banc). On August 11, 2004, the Ninth Circuit denied the government petitions for rehearing.

U. S. Supreme Court: On November 9, 2004, the federal government appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. On February 22, 2005, the Court announced that during the upcoming October term the Ninth Circuit’s decision would be reviewed. The case was renamed Gonzales v. Oregon (Docket 04-623). Oral arguments were heard on October 5, 2005.

On January 17, 2006, the Court, in a 6-3 ruling, affirmed the decision of the lower court that the attorney general had exceeded his authority. In his dissent, Justice Scalia argued that the Court distorted the meaning of the Controlled Substances Act and disregarded settled principles of legal interpretation. He concluded: “If the term ‘legitimate medical purpose’ has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death.”

Senate: On May 25, 2006, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), Chairman of the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held an oversight hearing titled, “The Consequences of Legalized Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.” On August 3, 2006, Sen. Brownback introduced the Assisted Suicide Prevention Act (S. 3788). The measure had three cosponsors and was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. S. 3788 would make it unlawful to dispense, distribute, or administer a controlled substance for the purpose of assisting suicide or causing the death of a person. The bill acknowledged that alleviating pain is a legitimate medical purpose for controlled substances, even if such use may increase the risk of death. With regard to penalties, it remained within the discretion of state authorities to take action with regard to state professional licenses or state prescribing privileges. The bill was pending in committee at year’s end.