Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Suicide Is Painless

In a win for states' rights and the seemingly outdated value of compassion, the U.S. Supreme Court today upheld Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law by a 6-3 ruling.

On the portentous side, however, new Chief Justice John Roberts joined Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in backing the Bush administration's opposition to the eight-year-old Death With Dignity Act.

The Washington Post 's William Branigin notes that former-Attorney General John Ashcroft challenged the Oregon law by claiming it violated federal authority to prosecute doctors who prescribe lethal drugs. Branigin writes:

"At issue was whether the federal Controlled Substances Act, enacted in 1970 to combat drug abuse and trafficking, allowed the attorney general unilaterally to prohibit doctors in Oregon from prescribing regulated drugs for use in physician-assisted suicide, despite state law permitting them to do so.

"Writing the opinion of the court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the federal law bars doctors from using prescriptions to engage in illicit drug dealing but that 'the statute manifests no intent to regulate the practice of medicine generally.' Moreover, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) relies on 'a functioning medical profession regulated under the states' police powers,' he wrote."

The Post adds that Scalia, writing the dissent, scoffed at suggesting physician-assisted suicide serves a "legitimate medical purpose."

"Saying that the court's decision 'is perhaps driven by a feeling that the subject of assisted suicide is none of the Federal Government's business,' Scalia wrote that 'it is easy to sympathize with that position.' However, the government has long been able to use its powers 'for the purpose of protecting public morality,' he said.

"'Unless we are to repudiate a long and well-established principle of our jurisprudence, using the federal commerce power to prevent assisted suicide is unquestionably permissible,' Scalia said. 'If the term "legitimate medical purpose" has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death.'"

Since the law's inception in 1994, about 200 terminally ill Oregonians were able to end their lives. Doesn't the alleviation of pain and suffering fall under the purview of "legitimate medical purpose" when there is no possibility of recovery? We here at CTTC applaud the high court for its decision.

With Samuel Alito assured a spot on the court, we can only hope that Anthony Kennedy is one super healthy mofo.

More on the topic is available over at How Appealing.


At 2:07 PM, Blogger Edward Copeland said...

The bright side of this is that even if Alito had already replaced O'Connor, it still would have been a 5-4 ruling (in theory). Kennedy is certainly the court's swing vote now. Let's just hope Ginsburg and Stevens can last until January 2009.

At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When has Scalia ever cared about prescribing drugs to produce death? Maybe he's going soft on us.

At 8:47 PM, Anonymous Greta McInerney-Smith said...

Much as I hate to side with the Conservative jurists, I draw a strong distinction between active and passive euthanasia. I do not see enabling suicide as a compassionate response. Passive euthanasia isn't really euthanasia; it's medicating people to avoid pain, and when body systems fail, the medication itself builds up and yes, hastens death. I see this very differently from actively prescribing a lethal prescription. The compassionate response would be to offer comfort, alleviate pain, take humane measures so the person feels worthwhile. The late Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote a book entitled "To Live until We Say Goodby." That should be the thrust of medicine and pastoral care.

Also, having worked with a large number of dying people, doctors really aren't able to accurately predict when death will come. For all its vaunted safeguards, the Oregon law frightens me.


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