On November 6th, during a week in which he announced a top-to-bottom “wartime reorganization and mobilization” of the Justice Department and law-enforcement agencies, Attorney General John Ashcroft found the time to issue a memo and a twenty-four-page brief threatening Oregon’s doctors. His directive aims to override a law, passed twice by Oregon voters, that allows doctors to issue prescriptions that may hasten the deaths of the terminally ill.
His action is a radical move for a man who has been a devout advocate of states’ rights for the past forty years. “Here is a person who defied court orders during his tenure as attorney general and governor of Missouri with respect to desegregation of the St. Louis schools, saying the federal government was exceeding its authority,” says Ralph G. Neas, president of the civil-liberties group People for the American Way.
Under current law in Oregon, a doctor cannot administer a lethal dose; a patient must ingest the drug himself. The Death With Dignity Act has been operating for four years in the state, where about 29,000 people a year die but where only seventy people so far are recorded to have died through assisted suicide.
Coming in the midst of the anthrax scare, Ashcroft’s attack on the physician-assisted-suicide law surprised people in Oregon. “It’s almost touching that the attorney general found a moment for us,” wrote a commentator in The Oregonian. But Ashcroft is only following up, at a higher level, on a crusade he launched years ago with other senators. He supported bills in 1998 and 2000 that would have amended the Controlled Substances Act to criminalize assisted suicide. And last year, during a campaign appearance, George W. Bush vowed to challenge Oregon’s law, saying, “Controlled substances to control pain are fine, to take a life is not fine.” This year, both the National Right to Life Committee and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pressured Bush and Ashcroft on this issue. While Bush’s decision to allow some stem-cell research disappointed the groups, the Oregon crackdown has encouraged them.
No one in Oregon’s congressional delegation knew this decision was coming, not even Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, an enemy of the assisted-suicide law. But Scott Swenson, executive director of Oregon Death With Dignity, says that the administration’s attempt at stealth has backfired. “They did this on Election Day, in the middle of a war — they wanted this thing buried, but it didn’t work.” Ashcroft’s legal standing is uncertain: States have always had jurisdiction over the regulation of medical practice, and the Controlled Substances Act has yet to be amended to give new authority to the federal government. Now a brutal court battle looms between the Oregon attorney general and the Justice Department. “Given everything the country is going through right now,” said Oregon’s Gov. John Kitzhaber, “why John Ashcroft picked this moment to inject this divisive issue into the public debate is just beyond me.”