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The Supreme Court Weighs in on Issue of Patients’ Right to Die

The Supreme Court last week upheld a controversial law in the state of Oregon that allows physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to help terminally ill patients end their lives. While the issue involves matters of life and death, VOA's Peter Fedynsky reports that the Supreme Court did not decide on the morality of assisted suicide.

Since the adoption of Oregon's Death With Dignity Act in 1997, about 200 residents of the state have chosen to die from an overdose of drugs legally prescribed by their physicians.

"I don't want to have to die in diapers," says breast cancer victim Char Andrews. She is glad that Oregonians voted twice in favor of the law that may some day allow her to end her own life.

Opposing the Oregon law was former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and his successor, Alberto Gonzales, who asked the Supreme Court to overturn the controversial measure. Both officials said that a federal law, The Controlled Substances Act, prohibits the use of narcotics nationwide for any reason other than legitimate medical purposes. The attorneys general argued that assisted suicide is not a legitimate practice because physicians traditionally help people live, not die.

However, the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants the states all powers that the document does not specifically delegate to the federal government. Determining medical policy is considered to be one such power.

Mark Moller, a constitutional expert at the Cato Institute think tank in Washington, says that the morality of assisted suicide was not an issue in the Oregon case. "What was at issue is whether a federal drug law, the controlled Substances Act, gives the Attorney General the power to second guess states' assisted suicide policies. And the court said that the congressional drug law didn't clearly give the Attorney General that authority. That's all it held."

Legislators in Washington state, Oregon's neighbor to the north, are also considering an assisted suicide law, though voters rejected the practice in a referendum in the early 1990s. It remains a crime in 44 states, and a civil offense in Virginia. Four states are neutral. Michigan even sentenced Dr. Jack Kevorkian to as much as 25 years in jail for helping patients die in that state.

While Oregon is out of step with the rest of the nation, Mark Moller says American states have always experimented with social policy.

"This is the idea of the framers [authors of the Constitution]. That we don't have one government, but we have multiple governments, each that can try different policies, see if they work and we can learn from them," he says.

This means that the Supreme Court, in a six to three vote, decided on procedure, not morality. Catholic University politics professor David Coyne says this is important for the rule of law.

"While sticking to a procedure may seem somewhat amoral -- like it's skipping the important question -- that in itself is something of a moral judgment; to trust in the rule of law as a positive good. Now at some point, the moral question has a very appropriate role,” said the professor.

Professor Coyne says the U.S. Congress could enter the morality debate by amending the Controlled Substances Act with a definition of "legitimate medical practice" that excludes assisted suicide. However, he notes that the states could argue in court that Congress would be usurping their right to determine medical policy.