January 17, 2006

Supreme Court Upholds Oregon’s Right to Die Law

The Federal Government’s Attempt to Use an Anti-Drug Law to Stop Physician-Assisted Suicide Fails

By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court today upheld Oregon’s assisted-suicide law, rejecting an attempt by the Bush administration to use a federal anti-drug law to prohibit doctors from helping terminally ill patients to end their own lives. The decision is a major victory for “right to die” proponents and for Oregon, which can now begin allowing doctor-assisted suicide after a more than four-year hiatus.

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The ruling comes at time when the public is evenly divided on the issue. A poll released by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press on Jan. 5 found that 46 percent of Americans support the right to assisted suicide while 45 percent oppose the practice. View a summary of the poll findings.

In September 2005, the Forum published an in-depth backgrounder on the case, which provides legal and historical analysis of the issues in Gonzales v. Oregon. An addendum to the backgrounder analyzing the court’s decision and its possible impact on future cases will soon be available on the Forum’s Web site, www.pewforum.org.

Last year, the Forum hosted two discussions on end-of-life issues. The first, which focused on the ethical implications of assisted suicide, featured Professor Daniel Brock of Harvard University, Professor R. Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin, Professor Robert George of Princeton University and Dr. Carlos Gomez of Capital Hospice. View a full transcript of the discussion. The second discussion focused on the merits of the Oregon case and featured M. Edward Whelan of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Robert Raben of The Raben Group. View a full transcript of the event.

The Oregon case stems from the state’s passage of the 1997 Death with Dignity Act, which legalized doctor-assisted suicide for mentally sound patients who have six months or less to live. So far, Oregon is the only state to enact such a statute.

In 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a ruling that determined that physician-assisted suicide is in violation of a federal anti-drug law, the 1970 Controlled Substances Act (CSA). According to the attorney general, the use of drugs to help a patient end his or her life did not constitute a “legitimate medical purpose” and hence was in violation of the CSA.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a majority that included outgoing Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, rejected Ashcroft’s analysis, arguing that the “authority claimed by the attorney general is both beyond his expertise and incongruous with the [CSA’s] purposes and design.”

The decision’s dissenters, including the new chief justice, John Roberts, argued that the distribution of medicine for suicide does fall within the authority of federal officials. “If the term ‘legitimate medical purpose’ has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the dissent.

Although the Oregon case is important, it does not involve a constitutional test of assisted suicide laws. “This is ultimately an administrative law case, one in which the court had to determine the extent of federal power to regulate a state action,” said David Masci, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum. “The question of whether assisted suicide is constitutional was settled by the Supreme Court in a 1997 case called Washington v. Glucksberg. In that decision, the court ruled that while there was no constitutional right to assisted-suicide, states could pass laws allowing the practice.”

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life delivers timely, impartial information to national opinion leaders on issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs; it also serves as a neutral venue for discussions of those matters. The Forum is a project of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.