The U.S. Supreme Court announced February 22 that it will decide whether the federal government may ban doctors from prescribing drugs to allow terminally ill patients to kill themselves. In 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft declared, in Oregon v. Ashcroft, that the Controlled Substances Act blocks such action.

The court agreed to hear the federal government's appeal of a lower court ruling saying that states have sole authority to regulate the practice of medicine. That ruling prevents the Drug Enforcement Administration from punishing doctors who prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients under Oregon's Death with Dignity Act.

The Bush administration argues that suicide is not a legitimate medical purpose.

Under the act, approved twice by Oregon voters, a terminally ill patient must obtain a certification from two doctors that he or she is sane and has less than six months to live. A doctor then writes a prescription for a lethal dose of drugs, which the patient self-administers. Over six years under the law, 171 terminally ill people have ended their lives.

Supporters of assisted suicide said they worry about the impact on patients needing pain relief. "We all know doctors step back just a little bit" in their willingness to prescribe potent, pain-controlling drugs under fear of prosecution, said Susan Tolle of the Center for Ethics in Health Care at Oregon Health and Science University.

But David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical Association, suggested the question is not pain relief, but the role of physicians in health care: "The Court has an opportunity to ensure that patients receive truly compassionate care and pain relief by limiting physicians' use of narcotics for healing—not ...

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