Federal judge upholds Oregon assisted-suicide law
PORTLAND, Oregon (CNN) -- A federal judge Wednesday upheld Oregon's law allowing physician-assisted suicide, ruling that the Justice Department does not have the authority to overturn it.
In his ruling, Judge Robert E. Jones criticized U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft for seeking to nullify the state law, saying he "fired the first shot in the battle" and had sought to "stifle" a debate on the matter through a Nov. 6 directive.
Jones ordered the federal government to halt any efforts to prosecute Oregon physicians, pharmacists and other health-care providers who participate in assisted suicide of terminally ill patients under Oregon's law.
"Many of our citizens, including the highest respected leaders of this country, oppose assisted suicide," Jones wrote. "But the fact that opposition to assisted suicide may be fully justified, morally, ethically, religiously or otherwise, does not permit a federal statute to be manipulated from its true meaning to satisfy even a worthy goal."
Ashcroft had cited the Controlled Substances Act as the basis of his directive.
The permanent injunction is a major blow to Ashcroft, who has staunchly opposed the Oregon law.
"We're digesting the opinion," Ashcroft said at a Wednesday Justice Department news conference. "The opinion will be evaluated in the department. The course of action to be taken by the department will be determined upon our complete reading of the opinion and evaluation of the circumstances."
The judge suggested Ashcroft was trying to overstep his bounds, noting that opponents of the Oregon law had failed to get Congress to ban nationwide the practice of assisted suicide.
"To allow an attorney general -- an appointed executive whose tenure depends entirely on whatever administration occupies the White House -- to determine the legitimacy of a particular medical practice without a specific congressional grant of such authority would be unprecedented."
No other state has passed an assisted-suicide statute. The Oregon Death with Dignity Act went into effect in October 1997.
Justice sources said they expected the department to appeal the decision to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Jones ruled that the federal government does not have the authority under the Controlled Substances Act to prohibit doctors from dispensing drugs used to assist in suicide.
The government had claimed assisted suicide is not a legitimate medical purpose.
-- CNN Justice Department Producer Terry Frieden contributed to this report.
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U.S. Supreme Court: Assisted Suicide
U.S. Justice Department
State of Oregon
Compassion in Dying
Physicians for Compassionate Care
Doctor-Assisted Suicide: A Guide to Web Sites and Literature
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