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Advocates Angered As Supreme Court Upholds Oregon's Assisted-Suicide Law
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
January 17, 2006

WASHINGTON, DC--In what is being seen as a blow to many disability rights groups, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the federal government cannot use drug laws to keep Oregon doctors from prescribing drugs intended for suicide.

In its 6-3 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court ruled that the federal Controlled Substances Act does not allow the U.S. Attorney General to interfere with doctors who prescribe drugs for physician-assisted suicide when state law permits the procedure.

In Gonzales v. Oregon (formerly Oregon v. Ashcroft) the state challenged former Attorney General John Ashcroft's interpretation of the federal law as banning doctors from prescribing lethal doses of drugs to patients who want to take their own lives. Ashcroft had said that prescribing medication, in this case a barbiturate, with death as the goal is not a legitimate use of the drug.

The Justices ruled that Congress did not intend for Controlled Substances Act to give the Attorney General the power to "alter the federal-state balance".

Under Oregon's 1994 physician-assisted suicide law, residents diagnosed with terminal illnesses may ask doctors for the lethal dose of a drug in order to kill themselves. Those who are eligible must be found to not have any mental condition that could impair their judgment. Since it became law in 1997, more than 208 people have used it to end their lives.

The law, which is the only one of its kind in the United States, essentially protects doctors from liability or criminal prosecution for assisting in a suicide.

Last year, a dozen disability advocacy groups signed onto an amicus (friend of the court) brief supporting the federal government's position.

Many disability rights advocates have opposed measures making assisted suicide legal, arguing that the existence of such laws puts the lives of people with certain disabilities and medical conditions at greater risk. They have also claimed that Oregon's law violates the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, along with equal protection provisions in the Constitution, because it discriminates against them and degrades their lives.

Diane Coleman, president of Not Dead Yet, said in a press statement that both the Justice Department and the Supreme Court have failed people with disabilities by ignoring the discrimination aspect of the Oregon law.

"Making suicide easy and socially approved for people who, according to the Oregon Reports, feel like burdens on their families, is discrimination against a socially devalued group. Assisted suicide is not a benefit, it's a threat."

"It should be noted that suicide, as a solitary act, is not illegal in any state," she said. "Disability concerns are focused on the systemic implications of adding assisted suicide to the list of 'medical treatment options' available to seriously ill and disabled people in the context of major budget cuts in government funded health care and in anticipation of the coming wave of aging baby boomers."

"If the values of liberty really dictate that society legalizes assisted suicide, then legalize it for everyone who asks for it, not just the devalued old, ill and disabled," Coleman added. "Otherwise, what looks like freedom is really only discrimination."

Along with Not Dead Yet, the following disability groups had signed on to the amicus brief: ADAPT; Center on Disability Studies, Law and Human Policy at Syracuse University; Center for Self- Determination; Hospice Patients Alliance; Mouth Magazine/Freedom Clearinghouse; National Council on Independent Living; National Spinal Cord Injury Association; Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered; Society for Disability Studies; TASH; and the World Institute on Disability.

Some experts suggest that the next battle over assisted suicide will likely take place in Congress, but that it is unlikely there are enough votes to support a nation-wide ban. Voters and legislatures in several states, including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Vermont and Washington, have rejected assisted suicide measures.

Gonzales v. Oregon (U.S. Supreme Court)
"Disability Activists Criticize Administration and Supreme Court on Assisted Suicide Ruling" (Not Dead Yet)
"End-of-life care now the central issue in debate over assisted suicide" (Chicago Tribune)

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