September 30, 2005

Supreme Court Considers Challenge to Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act: Gonzales v. Oregon and the Right to Die

On October 5, 2005, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Gonzales v. Oregon, a case arising from the conflict between Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act and the U.S. attorney general’s interpretation of the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Oregon’s law, which was twice approved by the state’s voters, permits physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to certain terminally ill patients, who may then choose to end their own lives. The Bush administration contends that the statute violates the federal law controlling the distribution of drugs.

Gonzales turns on questions involving the extent of federal control over state actions, rather than on the constitutionality of the “right to die.” Still, the case is of tremendous import, given the growing and highly charged debate over end-of-life issues, seen most recently in the nationwide controversy involving Terri Schiavo.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has issued a legal backgrounder on Gonzales, which examines the history and facts of the case as well as the complex legal issues that will come before the high court. It also puts Gonzales into broader historical context, providing an overview of the right-to-die debate over the last three decades and detailing important end-of-life cases.

Survey from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press:
Strong Public Support for Right to Die