PORTLAND, Ore. -- Handing the assisted-suicide movement a major victory, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that the Justice Department cannot interfere with Oregon's law allowing doctors to help terminally ill people kill themselves.
U.S. District Judge Robert Jones said Oregon voters decided "not once, but twice" to support the law and "have chosen to resolve the moral, legal and ethical debate on physician-assisted suicide for themselves."
The judge declared that Attorney General John Ashcroft had overstepped his authority in trying to thwart the law, and he rebuked Ashcroft for trying to "stifle" nationwide debate on the issue.
In Washington, Ashcroft said no decision has been made on whether to appeal. Assistant Attorney General Robert McCallum said the Justice Department remains convinced that "assisting suicide is not medicine."
"Physicians pledge a sacred oath to preserve health, heal disease, relieve pain and not to terminate lives with deadly drugs," McCallum said.
Oregon's law is the only one of its kind in the country. The law, approved by voters in 1994 and 1997, allows the terminally ill to request a lethal dose of drugs if two doctors confirm they have less than six months to live and the patients are mentally competent to make the request. The patients must take the fatal dose by themselves.
At least 91 people, most suffering from cancer, have killed themselves using the law, according to state health officials.
The law survived a federal court challenge, a repeal attempt and two efforts by Congress to override it before Ashcroft challenged it last November and set up the closely watched clash of federal and state authority.
The attorney general argued that dispensing drugs for a suicide does not serve a "legitimate medical purpose" under the federal Controlled Substances Act, and he issued a directive warning doctors that they would be stripped of their licenses to prescribe federally controlled substances -- a move that would have essentially ended assisted suicide in Oregon.
Jones issued a temporary injunction against the attorney general last fall and called the directive an "edict" delivered without any notice. On Wednesday, the judge made the injunction permanent.
The judge said the heart of the matter was whether Ashcroft has the authority to decide medical practices in states.
"No provision ... demonstrates or even suggests that Congress intended to delegate to the attorney general ... the authority to decide, as a matter of national policy, a question of such magnitude as whether physician-assisted suicide constitutes a legitimate medical purpose or practice," Jones said.
The judge also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in another assisted suicide case, said states can decide the issue for themselves without federal interference.
"Many of our citizens, including the highest respected leaders of this country, oppose assisted suicide," Jones wrote. "But the fact that opposition to assisted suicide may be fully justified, morally, ethically, religiously or otherwise, does not permit a federal statute to be manipulated from its true meaning to satisfy even a worthy goal."
The ruling was praised by assisted suicide supporters, including Barbara Coombs Lee, director of Compassion in Dying, a lawyer and former nurse who helped draft the Oregon law. She said the ruling ensures the terminally ill will have a choice.
"Oregonians will have peace of mind under this law, and that's the most important thing," Lee said.
Other advocates of assisted suicide said the ruling, if it stands, could encourage other states to pass similar laws.
"If the U.S. Supreme Court were to uphold the ruling today, the floodgates would open," said Ryan Ross, spokesman for the Hemlock Society.
In Hawaii, a statute modeled on the Oregon law has been stalled in the state Senate. Maine voters rejected a physician-assisted suicide ballot measure two years ago.
A doctors group that opposes physician-assisted suicide expressed hope Ashcroft will appeal. "Assisted suicide is not a legitimate medical practice," said Dr. Gregory Hamilton, a member of the Portland-based Physicians for Compassionate Care.