Dr. Ashcroft

Posted in General at 12 pm

Dr. Ashcroft is what some have called him. When Attny. General John Ashcroft started going after Oregon’s Assisted Suicide law, it raised quite a ruckus here. After all, the people of the state of Oregon had voted to approve it once, then after their own state government shot it down, the people voted for it again, this time with *more* people voting for it.

Now steps in Sherrif Ashcroft, bringing his own wiley ways to bear on the right to die with some diginity. Amy sent me some great editorials on this, which I’ve put in the Read More section.

There’s the San Jose Mercury, The Boston Globe, and The Providence Journal

Nov. 19, 2001, San Jose Mercury News
Editorial – The opinion of the Mercury News

Suddenly Ashcroft thinks he’s a doctor… Power play to try to stop assisted suicide in Oregon tramples on states’ rights.

Attorney General John Ashcroft fervently defends the principle of states’ rights, until it no longer suits his purpose.

Last week, Ashcroft ran roughshod over it. He told federal drug officials to prosecute Oregon’s doctors who prescribe drugs in accordance with that state’s physician-assisted suicide law.

In doing so, he dismissed the will of Oregon voters, who twice passed referendums establishing assisted suicide. He disregarded the intent of the U.S. Supreme Court, which said that states can decide the issue for themselves. And he took it upon himself to try what Congress twice has refused to do: ban assisted suicide nationwide.

Ashcroft can’t do anything for now. Oregon’s attorney general is fighting Ashcroft’s order, and a federal judge has granted a restraining order, pending a hearing this week . But many Oregonians are angry at Ashcroft’s power play.

Oregon is the only state to permit assisted suicide. Since the law took effect four years ago, 70 terminally ill people – fewer than 20 per year – have ended their lives with narcotics prescribed by physicians. Only individuals with less than six months to live, judged mentally competent by two doctors, are eligible for assisted suicide under the law.

Ashcroft directed the Drug Enforcement Agency to revoke licenses of doctors who prescribe lethal doses of federally regulated drugs. He cited the recent Supreme Court ruling that the federal government can override state laws permitting the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

But that decision, dealing with illegal drugs, provides a thin rationale for tramping on states’ right to regulate the practice of medicine – a power Congress has traditionally ceded to states. It’s also a selective reading of the Supreme Court. While rejecting a constitutional right to assisted suicide, a majority of judges said in a 1997 ruling that states should have latitude to permit assisted suicide. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cited the benefit of having states serve as a “aboratory” on difficult issues.

Ashcroft instructed the drug agency to pursue only those doctors who prescribed drugs to intentionally cause death, not those who may have hastened death in an effort to relieve pain. But Oregon’s doctors have cause for worry if drug agents start looking over their shoulders, deciding how and if they can practice medicine.

Given current events, Ashcroft should be directing all his energy on fighting terror, not terrifying doctors in Oregon who are complying with the public’s will and their patients’ wishes.


November 17, 2001
By Ellen Goodman, The Boston Globe

An Ashcroft Fixation

BOSTON – Let me see if I have this straight.

We have terrorists on the loose, anthrax wafting through the mail and the Justice Department is in hot pursuit of… terminally ill patients?

We have another plane crash to investigate, a network of foreign “sleepers” apparently eluding the FBI, and Attorney General John Ashcroft is taking aim at… the state of Oregon?

What’s going on here? The rest of us are worried about suicide bombers. He’s worried about doctor-assisted suicide.

It was bizarre enough last month when federal law enforcement officers began a crackdown on cannabis clubs in California that provide medical marijuana to AIDS and cancer patients. I chalked that up to reefer madness.

Then Ashcroft, using the same legal ploy, decided to go after an Oregon law permitting and regulating assisted suicide. He issued a blunt directive to the Drug Enforcement Administration that doctors would lose their licenses to prescribe federally controlled drugs if they prescribed them for assisted suicides. Doctors obeying the state law would be breaking the federal law.

Is it possible that the attorney general took the president too seriously about getting back to “normal”? Politics as usual?

Assisted suicide has been on the national agenda since Jack Kevorkian used carbon monoxide – not a controlled substance, by the way – on his first patient. He jump-started a passionate argument about the right to die and a deep conversation about the need for compassionate care at the end of life.

Oregon was the first state to pass a careful law allowing doctors to provide, though not administer, a lethal prescription to patients with less than six months to live who wanted the drugs and were judged capable of making that choice. The voters passed this referendum in 1994 and again by a wider margin in 1997. Since then, only 70 Oregonians have chosen assisted suicide. But more have found comfort in having the option.

Now it appears that elections make little impression on Ashcroft. After all, the former senator lost one in 2000 to the late Mel Carnahan, only to gain a Cabinet seat for his conservative views.

Remember back in 1997 when the Supreme Court ruled that there wasn’t any right to die in the Constitution but encouraged state experiments? In Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s words, “Our holding permits this debate to continue as it should in a democratic society.”

But the attorney general ordered the DEA to do what Congress, the courts and the voters didn’t do: stop the debate and upend the state law. A group of doctors and patients has won a temporary injunction, but the whole mess goes to court Tuesday.

Ashcroft is not the only opponent of assisted suicide who frames it as a “pro-life” issue. But there is something particularly perverse in applying “pro-life” politics and “rescue” rhetoric to patients who are dying.

Richard Holmes, one of the patients in the suit, told a reporter, “I’d love to stay alive… but I’ve also had enough medical diagnosis to know that my days are numbered.” Near the end of a long battle with liver cancer, he wants to be able to choose that number.

Of course no one needs a barbiturate to end his life. “I could do myself in a lot of other ways. I’ve got three guns in the house,” he says. But isn’t this where we came in?

Scare tactics will not only frighten doctors away from prescribing drugs for patients considering suicide. They will frighten doctors away from giving patients an alternative: enough painkillers to make their last days bearable.

In his order, Ashcroft writes blithely, confidently, that there are “distinctions between intentionally causing a patient’s death and providing sufficient dosages of pain medication necessary to eliminate or alleviate pain.”

But that is not nearly as clear to doctors who use, say, morphine in a delicate balance between relieving pain and hastening death. As we lie dying, do we want our own doctors worrying that DEA agents are counting how many painkillers make a criminal?

Every study will tell you that dying patients are more terrified of pain than death. Surely the attorney general of the United States should be fighting terror, not promoting it.


Leave Oregon Alone
The Providence Journal

Oregon leads the nation in formulating policies to accommodate our changing society. It legalized abortion long before the Supreme Court issued the Roe v Wade decision. It was the first to decriminalize marijuana. And its laws for managing sprawl have become a national model.

Oregon was also the first state to allow for physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Anti-abortion conservatives are up arms over the law, which has survived legal challenges and was approved twice by Oregon’s voters. U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has taken up their cause and now seeks to eviscerate Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.

Mr. Ashcroft did not attack the law directly. He would leave the Oregon law on the books. Instead he ordered the Drug Enforcement Administration to punish doctors who prescribe lethal drugs by removing their licenses to prescribe medication. In other words, the DEA can destroy livelihoods of doctors who follow it.

Let us not ignore state rights. It happens that regulating medical practices is generally a state function. So-called conservatives display no small amount of hypocrisy when they demand more power for the states, then call in the federal police when the states do something they don’t like.

Oregon’s physician-assisted-suicide law recognizes the realities of modern medicine. In former times, a serious disease would carry off a sick person rather quickly. Now medicine can keep people with several potentially fatal ailments going for years in pain.

For example, pneumonia was called “the old man’s best friend” because it took an elderly and dying person out of his misery with dispatch. Today a quick injection of antibiotics can revive a seriously ill person for many more months of agony.

The Death with Dignity Act gave modern medicine the legal means to help patients end miserable lives. It lets doctors write lethal prescriptions for patients with less than six months to live, as certified by two physicians. The patients must take the drugs themselves. About 70 people have used the law to hasten their deaths. Others keep the drugs only as a kind of insurance that leaves them the option to escape a horrible end, should they choose to.

Of course, doctors already help patients die through the back door of “pain reduction.” Narcotics, such as morphine, ease pain, but by repressing the patient’s breathing, they also rush death. Medical experts in states without an assisted-suicide law fear that Mr. Ashcroft’s order will involve the federal government deeply in crisis situations best handled by doctors and patients.

Choosing this time of national crisis to insert himself into a complicated social issue reflects serious misjudgment on Mr. Ashcroft’s part. “This attorney general is supposed to be figuring out who’s responsible for the anthrax,” said Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, himself a physician. “To introduce this divisive issue at this point in time is just, to me, unthinkable.”

Oregon has filed suit in federal court to stop federal interference in its physician-assisted suicide law. We urge Mr. Ashcroft to back off from this campaign against patients, doctors and state sovereignty.

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