WASHINGTON -- Attorney General John Ashcroft effectively blocked Oregon's landmark assisted suicide law Tuesday, authorizing federal drug agents to identify and punish doctors who prescribe federally controlled drugs to help terminally ill patients die.
In a memorandum to Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchison, Ashcroft wrote that assisting in a suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" under federal law, and said DEA agents should seek to revoke the drug licenses of Oregon physicians who help patients commit suicide.
The opinion, which reverses a 1998 administrative decision by former attorney general Janet Reno, effectively bars Oregon physicians from legally prescribing narcotics to help patients commit suicide under the state's Death With Dignity Act, according to Oregon officials and medical experts. All 70 people known to have died under the law have taken federally controlled drugs such as the barbituate secobarbitol, state officials said.
Although Ashcroft's decision appears to leave open the possibility of using less powerful drugs not regulated by the DEA, Oregon officials and medical experts said the risk of harm to patients and difficulties for physicians would be too high.
Ashcroft's letter does not call for criminal prosecutions of physicians, but some predicted the decision would make doctors more hesitant to prescribe powerful painkillers that could be used to commit suicide.
The assisted suicide order is the latest social policy decision by Ashcroft likely to please conservatives. The attorney general raised the ire of gun control groups by adopting a view of the Second Amendment advocated by the National Rifle Association, and has indicated a willingness to settle the federal government's landmark lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
Kevin Neely, a spokesman for Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers (D), said the state would seek a court injunction today to prevent the DEA from acting on Ashcroft's decision. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who personally opposed the assisted suicide law but has led efforts to block Congress from overruling it, said the opinion undermines the will of Oregon voters, who have twice approved assisted suicide in 1994 and 1997 referenda.
But Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., hailed the decision as a triumph of principle over politics, and a broad alliance of religious, medical and social groups who oppose Oregon's law said the order was a sensible way to halt what they consider a violation of physicians' ethical code. The influential American Medical Association also supported the move, although with some misgivings.
Burke Balch, medical ethics director of the National Right to Life Committee, said drugs "should be used to cure and to relieve pain, not to kill."
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