SAN FRANCISCO – The Bush administration asked a federal appeals court here Monday to reconsider a May decision that upheld Oregon's assisted suicide law and prohibited federal charges against doctors who prescribe overdoses.
The administration wants the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) to set aside its ruling backing the nation's only law allowing doctors to assist in hastening the death of patients. The Justice Department says the case, originally decided by a 2-1 vote, should be reheard with an 11-judge panel. Thirteen of the circuit's 25 full-time judges must agree to a rehearing, and they are rarely granted.
The three-judge panel in May ruled that, under the state's voter-approved law, Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) cannot sanction or hold Oregon doctors criminally liable for prescribing overdoses.
The panel said the states were free to adopt such laws, while the administration claims federal drug laws prohibit doctors from dispensing medication to end a patient's life.
In its petition, the Justice Department said "assisting suicide is not a legitimate medical purpose" under federal law. The government added that assisting suicide violates the oath doctors take upon entering the profession.
Eli Stutsman, an attorney representing a pharmacist and doctor in the case, said the federal government has no authority over Oregon's assisted suicide law. "There is simply no basis in the construct or intent of federal law that gives the federal government the authority to regulate the practice of medicine or establish the standard of care in the states."
The May decision by the 9th Circuit upheld a decision by a lower court judge, who ruled that the Controlled Substances Act (search) — the federal law declaring what drugs doctors may prescribe — does not give the federal government the power to say what is a legitimate medical practice.
The Oregon law allows terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to request a lethal dose of drugs after two doctors confirm the diagnosis and determine the patient to be mentally competent to make the request.
Since 1998, at least 171 people have used the law to end their lives, according to state records. Most of them suffered from cancer.