The High Court, by a 6-3 majority, ruled Tuesday that Attorney General John Ashcroft had been wrong in 2001 when he declared that he would prosecute doctors under the 1970 federal Controlled Substances Act if they prescribed lethal doses of medicine to terminally ill patients under Oregon's voter-approved Death with Dignity Act. Medical practice is traditionally regulated by the states, and Ashcroft's effort, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, amounted to "a radical shift of authority from states to the Federal government." The Oregon law, twice passed by statewide referenda, allows physicians to prescribe life-ending medicine under strict rules: patients must be mentally competent, able to self-administer the drugs, and certified by two physicians as having less than six months to live.
The decision may have an impact on pending legislation in California, Vermont and other states where patients'-rights groups have called for "compassionate choices" laws. A California bill, passed by an Assembly committee last year, comes up for a Senate committee vote in March. "Now the doors are open for other states to go forth," Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Portland-based Death with Dignity National Center told TIME. But Wesley J. Smith, a Discovery Institute fellow, was skeptical: "People are not exactly marching in the streets demanding the right to receive lethal prescriptions," he said.
The Family Research Council and other social conservative groups called on Congress Tuesday to enact a national ban against assisted suicide. But politicians may be reluctant to wade into the debate: Congressional efforts to intervene in the Terry Schiavo case were unpopular last spring. Moreover, a Harris poll last month found a 61% to 34% majority of Americans favoring a law similar to Oregon's in their state. In California, a Field poll last April found 70% of residents agreeing that "incurably ill patients have the right to ask for and get life-ending medication." Still, Tuesday's Supreme Court ruling is unlikely to end the debate.