Medical policy can be the most hazy area of lawmaking. Compromising certain practices’ legality with moral and ethical issues is challenging, and allowing states to specify individual laws in accordance with the wishes of the people is traditionally easier. However, it is apparent Attorney General John Ashcroft disagrees with voters’ capabilities.
In what many are deeming an abuse of power, Ashcroft has taken action against an Oregon law – passed twice by voters – which legalizes prescribing lethal drugs to terminally ill patients. By authorizing the Drug Enforcement Administration to revoke the license of doctors prescribing lethal drugs, Ashcroft proffered an extreme challenge to Oregon doctors acting in accordance with the law. This “Death with Dignity Act,” first passed in 1994, was reaffirmed in 1996 with 60 percent voter approval. Since its enactment in 1997, at least 70 people have peacefully ended their lives with legally prescribed drugs. Numerous others received the drugs but died of natural causes before using them. Ashcroft’s action sparked an uproar in Oregon, where both supporters and those in opposition of the bill are infuriated by his blatant effort to undercut the will of the voters.
According to Ashcroft, assisted suicide is not a “legitimate medical purpose” for the prescription of drugs. The New York Times reported Ashcroft also feels federal drug agencies can discern the “important medical, ethical and legal distinctions between intentionally causing a patient’s death and providing sufficient dosages of pain medication necessary to eliminate or alleviate pain.” This is impossible even for the most skilled doctors. If Ashcroft succeeds, this precedent will make distribution of morphine and other painkillers to terminally ill patients unnecessarily difficult, because they often accelerate death while making dying patients more comfortable.
Ashcroft’s beliefs do not grant him authority to tell Oregon voters what is and is not ethical. He is overstepping the terms of the federal controlled-substance law, which was written in reference to illegal drug trafficking and not individual states’ abilities to regulate medical practice. Oregon has responsibly overseen the terms of this law for four years, and federal intervention is clearly unnecessary. If Ashcroft prevails, there is no guaranteed sovereignty for states, and many assert his actions undermine the Bush administration’s promise to uphold states’ policymaking rights.
Ashcroft’s timing is the most ridiculous aspect of this crusade. The government does not know the origin of the anthrax attacks or where terrorists will strike next, yet the Attorney General finds time to ensure that terminally ill patients live an extra week of agony. He should worry more about the life expectancy of healthy Americans who potentially face lethal viruses each day instead of meddling unnecessarily in states’ affairs.