Backers of Oregon's one-of-a-kind assisted suicide law cheered the Supreme Court's upholding of the law on Tuesday as a significant victory for Oregon and for terminally ill people who want the choice to end their lives early.
The Oregon attorney general's office, which had urged the high court to uphold the assisted suicide law in oral arguments last fall, said Tuesday's ruling removes any doubts about the legality of physician aid-in-dying.
"For Oregon's physicians and pharmacists, as well as patients and their families, today's ruling confirms that Oregon's law is valid and that they can act under it without fear of federal sanctions," state Solictor General Mary Williams said.
Robert Kenneth of Portland, a spokesperson for a group known as Death with Dignity, said he was "very pleased and relieved" by the high court's decision.
"I couldn't be happier. I am a little surprised given the nature of the court. I knew we could rely on Sandra Day O'Connor to give balance to this issue. This is a remarkable ruling as she steps down and retires," Kenneth said.
Justices, on a 6-3 vote in which Chief Justice John Roberts was on the losing side, said the 1997 Oregon law used to end the lives of more than 200 seriously ill people trumped federal authority to regulate doctors.
That means the administration improperly tried to use a federal drug law to prosecute Oregon doctors who prescribe overdoses. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft vowed to do that in 2001, saying that doctor-assisted suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose."
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, vowed he would fight any future attempt in Congress to overturn the law.
"Today's decision by the Supreme Court is a significant victory for Oregon's voters," said Wyden. "The court's decision has stopped, for now, the administration's attempts to wrest control of decisions rightfully left to the states and individuals. I will fight tooth and nail any congressional attempts to overturn this court ruling."
Other Oregon politicians also welcomed the Supreme Court ruling.
"The Supreme Court ruled in support of each and every Oregonian and their fundamental right to choose how they leave this world," said U.S. Rep. David Wu, a Democrat. "Today we recognize the American value of self-determination."
Groups that oppose the Oregon law voiced chagrin over the Supreme Court ruling, including Portland-based Physicians for Compassionate Care.
Kenneth Stevens, M.D., a board member of the group, said he's concerned that costs will leave terminally ill patients feeling they have no choice but to end their lives.
"I'm concerned about economics," he said. "I'm concerned that people may find that assisted suicide is the only option."
He said doctors should be concerned about proper palliative care, which means easing pain and dealing with depression. He said many patients seeking help with suicide are depressed.
A Portland colleague of Stevens, William Toffler, M.D., said he didn't expect a rush among states to adopt a law similar to Oregon's.
A decade ago, he said, there were predictions that Oregon's law would be the first domino, but since then several states have resisted assisted suicide, either in legislatures or in statewide votes.
— The Associated Press