Dear Supporter of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare,
The US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Gonzales v Oregon yesterday. It is important to understand what this decision says and what it doesn’t say. For some reason, most newspapers, at least in their headlines, have seriously distorted the decision. For example, the Burlington Free Press headline says “Supreme Court Upholds Oregon Right to Die Law”. This is just plain wrong. The Oregon law that allows physician-assisted suicide was not under review.
After the OR law went into effect and it became clear that OR doctors were prescribing federally controlled narcotics and sedatives for people who wanted to end their lives, the federal government said this was a misuse of these drugs designed for relief of pain and anxiety. They threatened to rescind the federal narcotics licenses of OR doctors who did this. OR challenged this as an inappropriate federal intrusion into the practice of medicine which has traditionally been under the control of states. (The federal control of a few drugs subject to abuse is the exception to this state control; physicians are required to have a separate federal license to prescribe these drugs.)
Had the Court upheld the federal government’s position, the OR law would have remained intact, and OR doctors could have continued to help patients take their lives using drugs that are not under federal control. Instead, the Court, by a 6-3 vote, upheld the state challenge of the federal ruling. The issue was one of states’ rights. In 1997, the Supreme Court said that there is no constitutional right to assistance with suicide, and this issue was not before the Court in Gonzales v Oregon.
The New York Times has a more balanced presentation of the ruling under the headline “Fraught Issue, but Narrow Ruling in Oregon Suicide Case. Their news analysis available at:http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/18/national/18oregon.html?th&emc=th.
Most VAEH members agree that using narcotics and/or sedatives to help people take their own lives is an improper use of these valuable drugs. There has not been agreement on whether this attempt by the federal government was appropriate and/or whether it would work. That part of the discussion is now put to rest.
VAEH doesn’t want to clog your e-mail boxes with frequent newsletters, but we felt it was important for you to correctly understand both this ruling and the media’s misunderstanding of it.
Bob Orr, president, VAEH