Wednesday, January 18, 2006

An unexpected victory

The US Supreme Court has upheld Oregon's assisted suicide law in a 6-3 decision. The law allowed Oregon doctors to (with various checks and balances to ensure informed consent) prescribe a lethal dose of barbiturates to terminally ill patients who expressed a strong and continuing wish to die. The Bush Administration (and notably former Attorney-General John Ashcroft) had objected to this, and attempted to have doctors deregistered under federal drug laws. The Supreme Court ruled [PDF] that assisting suicide is a "legitimate medical purpose" (or at least, is not "drug abuse") and that in the absence of federal law regulating suicide, it is up to the States to decide how they want to handle it. Ironically, the latter hoists the American Right with their own petard and again exposes their hypocrisy. Justices Scalia and Thomas, the darlings of the Right, have been solid advocates of "state's rights", using the doctrine to undermine Federal anti-discrimination and environmental laws. But when it comes to people being allowed to end their lives in the manner of their choosing (or electing their preferred candidate to the Presidency, for that matter), that position goes right out of the window...

As one of the commenters on Talk Left notes, this is likely to be a short-lived victory. The ruling is essentially about the interpretation of regulations, the power granted to the Attorney-General under a particular statute, and the authority of the states in the absence of explicit federal law. The response is likely to be the passage of such a law. But then, that is what the court wants: for the decision to be made by elected representatives rather than an unelected Attorney-General.