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The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to referee the emotionally charged debate over Oregon’s “Death With Dignity” law, which allows physicians to prescribe drugs to hasten the death of terminally ill patients. The Court added to its fall argument docket the case of Gonzales v. Oregon, which new Attorney General Alberto Gonzales inherited from predecessor John Ashcroft, a longtime opponent of assisted suicide. The 1994 law, unique in the nation, gives Oregon doctors the authority to prescribe controlled substances to mentally competent, terminally ill patients who are within six months of dying. Since it took effect in 1998, 171 Oregonians have committed suicide under the law. Gov. Ted Kulongoski of Oregon said he was disappointed the Court took up the case. “The people of Oregon have approved Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act not once, but twice, and the lower courts have upheld Oregon’s law not once, but twice,” he said in a statement. Gloria Farris of Portland, Ore., whose husband, Dick, used the law to end his life after a bout with pancreatic cancer in 2002, also said that the law did not need to be scrutinized again. But she also said, “The only positive thing is that more people will understand the benefits of the law, and the Supreme Court will understand better and be able to express it to others that this is a well-managed and careful law and blessing for all of us.” In filing the appeal with the Supreme Court last November, Ashcroft sought to overturn a May 2004 decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld Oregon’s law. The basis for the litigation is an interpretive rule that Ashcroft published in the Federal Register. Ashcroft said that Oregon’s practice violated the federal Controlled Substances Act because it lacked a “legitimate medical purpose.” The directive said that doctors who prescribed controlled substances to assist death could lose their federal prescription licenses. Oregon, joined by a group of terminally ill patients and a physician-pharmacist, challenged Ashcroft’s directive in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. “The question is about the scope of the Controlled Substances Act,” says Kathryn Tucker, an attorney for Compassion & Choices, a group that represents the Oregon patients. “The act was designed to prevent the diversion of controlled substances into the black market or into the hands of those who would use them to abuse substances. It has nothing to do with the Death With Dignity Act.” The Bush administration counters that under the federal drug law, the government may regulate controlled substances in all contexts. In its response to the Oregon challenge, the administration writes that it is “[t]he CSA’s scheme to control all manufacturing, possession, and distribution of any scheduled drug.” With the federal law controlling, the Bush administration says that Oregon’s law cannot stand. The administration also argues that the actual “taking of drugs to commit suicide is ‘drug abuse.’” Oregon and others reject this argument. Patrick Trueman, senior legal counsel for the Family Research Council, was glad to hear the high court rule on the Oregon law. “I would expect the Court to uphold the right of the Justice Department to enforce the Controlled Substances Act even in states that have contrary laws as Oregon does,” said Trueman, whose group filed a brief in the case supporting the Bush administration.

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