Life and Liberty

Posted: Nov 12, 2001 12:00 AM
It doesn't speak well for this country that Attorney General John Ashcroft is in the doghouse for issuing a ruling last week instructing federal drug agents to target doctors who prescribe lethal drugs under Oregon's assisted-suicide law. Critics say that Ashcroft is wrong to base his Oregon ruling on a unanimous May U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found that federal drug laws make no exception for state law that allows medical use of marijuana. They say it's inconsistent for a Republican not to cede to local control. They say by warning Oregon doctors that they could lose their licenses to prescribe federally controlled drugs if they provide prescriptions for lethal drugs under state law, he has taken away Oregon's right to govern the practice of medicine. Personally, I'd like to see Uncle Fed cede to the locals on medical marijuana. But on the law, Ashcroft is right. The Supreme Court says that the federal Controlled Substances Act trumps state law, and that's what matters. Besides, if anyone was inconsistent, it's former Attorney General Janet Reno. She determined that federal law trumped local law on medical marijuana -- thus the feds could stop sick people from getting high -- but that Oregon could prescribe lethal doses to help sick people kill themselves. Assisted suicide didn't lead to "drug abuse," you see. She'd let sick people kill themselves because they might be in pain, but she wouldn't let them self-medicate with marijuana. Her motto, apparently: better dead than high. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has shown himself to be a man with Reno-like compassion. He responded to the Ashcroft ruling by warning the public it could have a chilling effect on doctors who might fear prescribing pain control medication lest Ashcroft's agents arrest them. That's a nasty bit of misinformation to spread -- one that needlessly may scare vulnerable people into believing that they can't get pain control that Ashcroft believes they should get. In fact, Ashcroft wrote to the Oregon Medical Association that his ruling should not "deter physicians from prescribing controlled substances to alleviate pain" even, he added, "when dosages needed to control pain may increase the risk of death." While Wyden has been scaring sick people, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., has been willing to risk the wrath of voters for his beliefs. Smith knows that voters don't like Ashcroft overruling their law, but he told Ghe New York Times, "For me, it's an issue of principle on which I'm prepared to stake my political career." He is risking his seat. Many voters seem to think that Ashcroft's move takes away a right to suicide. You see, they don't believe people should have to commit suicide without a doctor's help. Forget that some 86 Americans kill themselves every day without a doctor. They are so enamored with the possibility of exiting holding Marcus Welby's hand, they fail to notice that they would turn Marcus Welby into that ghoul, Jack Kevorkian. They think their doctor will try to talk them out of it. But in an era where cost-cutting is king, Oregon doctor William Petty worries that some sick people are coerced -- gently or not-so-gently -- to choose death: "You can envision that people will get inadequate pain medication, and be told that their pain is not controllable and will get worse." The answer: Death, the final pain control. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat and physician, too well expressed why he disagreed with Ashcroft. "The timing of this (ruling) is really pretty astounding," he charged. "This attorney general is supposed to be figuring out who's responsible for the anthrax. We've got an overloaded medical community. An overloaded public health system. Docs who are trying to respond to this. And to introduce this divisive issue at this point in time is just, to me, unthinkable." There are no known cases of anthrax in Oregon, but spokesman Jon Coney said that state health professionals have been "redoubling their efforts against possible outbreak." Coney denied that when Kitzhaber spoke of an "overloaded medical community," that the governor was suggesting that overworked doctors should not have to expend resources on terminal patients. Coney said that because doctors are "overloaded," they shouldn't have to deal with a "divisive" issue. It's astonishing how advocates of assisted suicide can see the importance of so many side issues -- timing, divisiveness, local control -- while missing the biggest issue of all: that doctors are supposed to heal and relieve pain, not kill patients in the name, as some claim, of "compassion." As Gene Tarne of the Virginia-based Americans for Integrity of Palliative Care, sees it, so-called "compassion in dying" means: "Let's put them out of not their misery, but out of society's misery. Why should we spend money and resources to care for these people?" Re-read Kitzhaber as he talks about the system being "overloaded" in the same breath that he champions assisted suicide. You have to wonder whose burden he and his co-believers want to ease: their patients' or their own.