Death with Dignity Act Goes to High Court

Medical Authors and Editors: Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D. and Frederick Hecht, M.D.

November 11, 2004 -- This week the White House asked the US Supreme Court to block the Oregon law known as the Death With Dignity Act. The Oregon law permits patients with less than six months to live to request a lethal dose of drugs after two doctors confirm the diagnosis and determine the person's mental competence to make the request.

In May of this year the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that the federal government could not circumvent Oregon law and punish doctors in Oregon who prescribed lethal doses of federally controlled drugs.

Basis for the Appeal

The federal government's appeal to the Supreme Court came from US Attorney General John Ashcroft on November 9, the day that he tendered his resignation. The government argues that assisted suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose."

Basis for the Oregon Law

The State of Oregon believes that it has the right to regulate medical practice in Oregon. The tradition in the US has been that the states, not the federal government, have regulated medical practice.


This case, which is called Ashcroft v. Oregon, is an important one. It tests the federal government's ability to overturn the will of the voters in a state and prosecute physicians who are obeying state law. A federal government in favor of states' rights believes it can trump the rights of the State of Oregon.

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