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50+: Live Better, Longer

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High Court OKs Doctor-Assisted Suicide

Ruling Prevents Federal Officials From Interfering in Oregon Law
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 17, 2006 - The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law Tuesday, ruling that federal agents cannot use antidrug statutes to interfere with the program.

Assisted-suicide advocates hailed the 6-3 ruling as a major victory that could allow other states to implement similar laws. The Bush administration said it was disappointed by the decision.

A total of 208 terminally ill Oregonians used the law to end their lives between 1998 and 2004, according to state records. Figures have not been released for 2005.

Oregon's Law

Oregon allows terminally ill adult patients who are expected to die within six months to seek a doctor's prescription for a lethal dose of medication. Patients must be at least 18 years old and a resident of the state. Under the law, patients must make verbal requests for assistance on two separate occasions at least 15 days apart.

The patient must also submit a written request -- signed by witnesses -- to his attending physician. The physician then has to consult with a second doctor to confirm the terminal diagnosis and determine that the patient is mentally competent and is not suffering from a psychiatric disorder that could impair decision making. The attending physician must request that the patient notify next of kin regarding the prescription. At any time, the patient may change his or her mind.

Doctors also have to inform patients about alternatives to suicide, including hospice care.

Legal Battle

The case began in 2001 when then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the Justice Department would use the Controlled Substances Act to punish any doctor who used medications to help a patient commit suicide under the law.

Oregon sued, arguing that federal officials had no right to use the law to influence medical practices, which are traditionally regulated by the states.

A majority of justices agreed, noting Tuesday that Congress never intended for the Controlled Substances Act to be used to enforce medical policy.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, and David Souter backed the Oregon law. Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, and new Chief Justice John Roberts dissented.

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