October 5, 2005

Top court seems closely divided on suicide law

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court seemed
closely split on Wednesday on whether the Bush administration
can stop doctors from helping terminally ill patients take
their own lives under the nation's only physician-assisted
suicide law.

During arguments, the justices sharply questioned both
sides on whether then-Attorney General John Ashcroft had the
power under federal law in 2001 to bar distribution of
controlled drugs to assist suicides, regardless of state law.

The Oregon law, called the Death with Dignity Act, was
twice approved by the state's voters. The only state law in the
country allowing physician-assisted suicide, it has been used
by 208 people since it took effect in 1997.

It was the first major case that new Chief Justice John
Roberts, a conservative jurist named by President George W.
Bush, has heard since his confirmation late last week.

Several justices appeared sympathetic to Oregon's arguments
that regulation of doctors and medicine has traditionally been
left to the states rather than the federal government.

But other justices questioned how far a state could go and
whether it could decide if doctors can prescribe morphine for
depression or steroids for body building.

Roberts asked whether such state decisions would undermine
the effectiveness and uniformity of the federal law.

Under Oregon law, terminally ill patients must get a
certification from two doctors stating they are of sound mind
and have less than six months to live. A prescription for
lethal drugs is then written by the doctor, and the patients
administer the drugs themselves.

Ashcroft's directive declared that assisting suicide was
not a legitimate medical purpose under the Controlled
Substances Act and that prescribing federally controlled drugs
for that purpose was against the federal law.

He reversed the policy adopted by his predecessor, Attorney
General Janet Reno, during the Clinton administration.
Conservative lawmakers and groups opposed Reno's decision.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who often casts the decisive
vote on the divided court and often supports the states,
questioned the federal government's argument.

She asked the hypothetical question of whether an attorney
general who opposed the death penalty could take a similar
position and decide physicians could not prescribe drugs for
lethal injections of death row inmates.


"The practice of medicine by physicians is an area
traditionally regulated by the states, it is not?" O'Connor
asked Solicitor General Paul Clement, the administration's top
courtroom lawyer.

It is not known whether O'Connor will still be on the court
when it rules. She has said she will retire when her successor
is confirmed by the Senate. Bush has chosen White House counsel
Harriet Miers for O'Connor's seat.

Justice David Souter said that 90 years of federal
regulation have been aimed at stopping drug dealing and drug
abuse. He described it as a "bizarre result" to suddenly give
the attorney general effectively sole authority over whether a
state may authorize physician-assisted suicide.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked whether the federal
government had abandoned the position it took in a 1997 case
that assisted suicide was a matter for the states to decide.

Besides Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia also seemed
skeptical of the state's position. "I think that assisted
suicide would have been just as unthinkable at the time this
(the federal law) was enacted as prescribing cocaine for
recreational use," Scalia said.

Justice Stephen Breyer asked whether states could make
marijuana or morphine legal. "Suppose I think the attorney
general has the power to stop states from gutting the act," he
said. Other justices asked whether states could allow doctors
to prescribe steroids for body building.

A ruling is expected by the middle of next year.