Assisted Suicide Supporters Attack Ashcroft, Promote Democratic Senate

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - Supporters of Oregon's assisted suicide law came to Washington Wednesday to attack Attorney General John Ashcroft for enforcing the Bush administration's position against the state law and to promote Democratic retention of the Senate.

Barbara Coombs Lee, a former nurse practitioner and physicians assistant, is now an attorney who heads the Compassion in Dying Federation (CDF), and co-authored the Oregon law. At the National Press Club Wednesday, she stressed her feeling that Ashcroft's actions are based in personal beliefs not administration policy.

"No one really would have cared much about this, I think, if it hadn't been for John Ashcroft and the attack that he launched," Lee said.

"We are defending Oregon's deference to individual autonomy at the end of life against the U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft's personal belief that assisting a terminally ill patient to hasten the moment of death is morally wrong," she said.

The National Right to Life Committee's director of medical ethics, Burke Balch, found it difficult to believe that Ashcroft's personal beliefs could have been responsible for a decision made by the Clinton administration.

"The original interpretation that physician-assisted suicide was 'not a legitimate medical practice' did not originate with Attorney General Ashcroft," he explained. "The original ruling came during the Clinton administration from the professional head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)."

Balch noted that the DEA decision, which was supported by a "long-standing consensus of medical organizations like the American Medical Association and virtually every other major medical organization," was overruled by then Attorney General Janet Reno.

"What Attorney General Ashcroft did was simply to restore the original judgment made by the professionals in the Drug Enforcement Administration," he added. "So to accuse him of somehow inventing this out of whole cloth, I think, suggests more a vendetta against him than it does any motivation that might exist on his part."

The assisted suicide proposal was put on the ballot by voter initiative in 1994 after failing four times to pass the state legislature. The initiative passed by a margin of 51 to 49 percent. A repeal effort which was undertaken by the legislature in 1997 failed by 60 to 40 percent.

The law went into effect Oct. 27, 1997 when a federal injunction was lifted after the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of the legislation.

Since that time, 91 people have committed suicide with the help of a physician. Some 104 medical professionals have participated in the process, according to CDF.

Ashcroft responded to the Supreme Court ruling by invoking the power of the DEA to regulate the use of narcotics under federal law. The Justice Department determined that terminating a human life is not a "legitimate medical purpose" under the law, and that physicians may lose their DEA licenses to prescribe narcotics if they engage in the practice.

Michael Franc, vice president of government relations with the Heritage Foundation, said Ashcroft's next step made perfect sense.

"To the extent that Ashcroft is looking to enforce clear federal law, like that, he's completely within his rights to do so and, in fact, I would argue it's his obligation to do so," Franc said.

CDF and a number of other interveners challenged the move in federal court, and the court issued a permanent injunction to prevent the DEA from revoking physicians' prescribing rights. Briefs are due in the case in November. Oral arguments could be heard in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as early as May of 2003.

Lee believes Ashcroft clearly overstepped his constitutional bounds.

"Nothing in federal law gives Attorney General Ashcroft the authority to intrude in medical practice that is governed by a state," she said.

But Lee acknowledges that the DEA does have the authority, under a 1984 law passed by Congress, to act "in the public interest," whenever a state fails to take action.

"That is the little clause under which Attorney General Ashcroft feels that he has authority [to do this]," she said.

Franc disagrees.

"When you're in this territory where there is a well-established federal system of regulating controlled substances, and the states routinely have observed that over time," he observed, "I think [Ashcroft] probably will prevail."

While Lee believes CDF will prevail in court, she is also keenly aware of another potential battlefield.

Two attempts to preempt the Oregon law have failed in Congress.

First, the Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act failed both houses.

The second, the Pain Relief Promotion Act, would have protected physicians who attempt aggressive pain control measures that accidentally result in the death of a patient, while prosecuting those who intentionally assist in a suicide. That bill passed the House but was blocked from a floor vote in the Senate with a filibuster by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Lee believes Senate Democrats' success in blocking congressional action against the Oregon statute points out the need for strong November turnout of voters who support the law.

"The likelihood of a bill like that passing Congress very much depends on which party controls the Houses after the upcoming election," she said. "It's very important that we keep a Democratic Senate because, win or lose [in court], I think they will. Or maybe they'll lose patience with the courts and try to pass another law."

Lee's faith in her case is in doubt, Franc believes, because she is lobbying to protect the law politically, while at the same time trying to have it protected by the courts.

"It is curious that they would want to transgress the boundaries of the court system and get into the elected bodies. It speaks to the increasing politicization of lawsuits in the country," he observed.

Balch said the message from Lee's two-pronged approach is clear.

"The fact that Compassion in Dying is making a campaign pitch should emphasize to others how very important it is to elect pro-life candidates to the Senate," he argued, "precisely because the attitude of whether the federal government is going to facilitate euthanasia may, in fact, be influenced by these elections."

Franc predicts supporters of assisted suicide will eventually lose their battle both in the courts and in Congress.

"It seems like the only way Oregon can get its way here is to secede," he concluded. "Short of doing that, there is a federal system and they have to abide by those laws."

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