SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal appeals court Wednesday declared the Bush administration has no right to interfere with Oregon's assisted suicide law, the only one in the country to allow doctors to help patients end their lives. In a 2-1 ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals said Attorney General John Ashcroft cannot sanction or hold doctors criminally liable for prescribing overdoses under Oregon's voter-approved Death With Dignity Act. The law allows terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to request a lethal dose of drugs. Two doctors must confirm the diagnosis and determine the patient to be mentally competent to make the request.
Since 1998, at least 171 people have used Oregon's law to end their lives, according to state records. Most suffered from cancer.
In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court said that there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide but that states may decide the issue for themselves without federal interference.
Later, the Bush administration Justice Department concluded that suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" under the Controlled Substances Act, the federal law declaring what drugs doctors may prescribe. The department threatened to punish doctors by revoking the federal licenses they need to prescribe medicine.
Oregon countered by arguing that regulating and licensing doctors generally has been the sole responsibility of the states. Oregon also said that Congress intended only to prevent illegal drug trafficking by doctors under the Controlled Substances Act, and that it left decisions about medical practice up to the states.
The court's decision is unlikely to immediately open the floodgates for similar legislation in other states. The states have been cool to the idea. Hawaii lawmakers shelved a proposal in March, and in Vermont, the only other known state to recently grapple with it, lawmakers balked last week.
"This isn't something that is going to rush out in 20 states tomorrow," said Scott Swenson, executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center. "The onus is for us to secure a couple more states to prove it can work."
Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the government was reviewing the decision, and was not prepared to comment on whether it would appeal.
In 2002, a federal judge in Portland, Ore., ruled against the Justice Department. In a rebuke to Ashcroft, U.S. District Judge Robert Jones said that the Controlled Substances Act does not give the federal government the power to say what is a legitimate medical practice.
In a similar 1996 case from Washington state, the 9th Circuit ruled that assisted suicide was permitted because there was a constitutional right to die. That decision meant Washington state could not prosecute doctors who aided their patients' deaths.
In a dissent Wednesday, Circuit Judge J. Clifford Wallace said the courts should give "substantial deference" to the attorney general's findings in the absence of a clear congressional policy.
"Certainly, Congress is free to enact legislation limiting or counteracting the Ashcroft directive's effects," Wallace said.