In a week when Attorney General John Ashcroft was struggling with anthrax, investigating September 11 and overhauling his department, he still managed to take on another threat: the voters of Oregon. And the federal courts that have sustained them. Somehow, Ashcroft found time to throw out Oregon's assisted suicide law, which allows doctors to provide lethal drug doses, on request, to terminally ill patients near the end of life. The measure was passed by Oregon voters twice (the second time overwhelmingly) and survived federal court and Congressional challenges–but was targeted by antiabortion and religious right forces.
The law has been in effect four years without setting off the bloodbath darkly envisioned by its opponents. The greatest effect, say many, has been on terminal patients who don't choose assisted suicide but have benefited from the state's greater emphasis on treating pain in late-stage cancer and nerve disease. Still, Ashcroft proclaimed, "I hereby determine that assisting suicide is not a 'legitimate medical purpose'…and that prescribing, dispensing or administering federally controlled substances to assist suicide violates the Controlled Substances Act." To bolster his ruling, Ashcroft cited a recent Supreme Court ruling on medical marijuana that found that federal rules about controlled substances could not be abridged by states–despite states' traditional oversight of medical care.
But Ashcroft ignored the 1997 Supreme Court decision that directly addressed assisted suicide. That ruling declared that while there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide, the Constitution doesn't forbid it. Most of the Justices, in fact, called for testing the idea at the state level. "There is no reason to think the democratic process will not strike the proper balance between the interests of terminally ill, mentally competent individuals who would seek to end their suffering and the state's interests in protecting those who might seek to end life mistakenly or under pressure," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Ashcroft's selective citation may have contributed to the temporary injunction granted Oregon by US District Court Judge Robert Jones, blocking enforcement of the order until November 20. (On that day Jones extended the injunction for an additional five months.) At the time of his original decision Jones questioned Ashcroft's timing, noting that the legal memo backing the order was written in June. "July passed. August passed. September and October passed," pointed out Jones. "We're approaching the second week in November, and suddenly the Attorney General is issuing an edict for instant enforcement."
To the Bush Administration, assisted suicide is a second front in the abortion issue, where conservative allies can be supported at limited political cost. The National Right to Life Committee praised the decision, and the only White House comment on it, from Bush spokesman Ken Lisaius, was, "The President believes we must value life and protect the sanctity of life at all stages." Washington observers speculated that the policy was intended to soothe antiabortion forces, who wanted Bush to attack abortion rights more forcefully and were particularly disgruntled that he didn't completely shut down stem-cell research.
In Oregon, new US Attorney Michael Mosman insisted that he expected no prosecutions: "It's simply not true that there's going to be teams of DEA agents scouring the state." But Ashcroft ordered DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson–formerly a conservative GOP Congressman from Arkansas–to enforce the new policy nationally, especially in Oregon, and Hutchinson pledged to prevent the abuse of pain medication. Hutchinson's pledge should be seen in the context of the October 25 raid by some thirty DEA agents (in the midst of the anthrax scare) on the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, a major provider of medical marijuana. That practice is supported by voters in California and seven other states but is rejected by the federal government–along with Oregon's voter-passed policy.
"If there's one thing I've heard over and over from Oregonians," said an unhappy Representative Greg Walden, the state's only House Republican, "it is this: When does my vote count?"
The Justice Department, in the middle of the country's greatest crisis in fifty years, at a time of constant calls for national unity, is still managing to pursue its right-wing social agenda, even against the clear voice of voters. After all, you have to stick to your priorities.