Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Assisted Suicide Ruling a Victory for Doctors

The Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government cannot prosecute doctors for prescribing lethal doses of medicines under Oregon’s assisted suicide law. Interestingly, it was the liberal block of justices who came down in favor of state’s rights and three conservatives (Thomas, Scalia and Roberts) who supported the forceful use of federal power.

Given that only last year, Thomas supported California’s medicinal marijuana law (as did O’Connor and Rehnquist) while the liberal block voted against California, I wouldn’t read too much into the Oregon case and what it portends for the future of the Court.

A cursory reading of this decision seems to reveal that the differences between the judges wasn’t so much states-rights vs. federal power as it was whether or not the federal government can directly control physicians. The dissenters said yes because the federal government controls pharmaceuticals and can thus prosecute doctors who prescribe drugs improperly. The majority said no because setting up rules and regulations for doctors has always been a state power and the federal government has no right to supersede that authority.

A lot of people are going to say this is a victory for individual rights. But I see it as a victory for doctors and for medicine in general. All states already well-regulate their doctors. We do not need and certainly do not want a secondary level of supervision coming from the federal government—particularly when said supervision is being controlled not by medical panels but by the Attorney General, President and other politicians and lawyers brimming with personal beliefs but devoid of medical training.

Had the dissenters in this case prevailed, the executive branch of the government would have been granted the power to prosecute doctors for writing prescriptions legal in their own state but which the Justice Department deems inappropriate. That’s giving the federal government far too much power. And that’s why the majority was right in this case.

As for assisted suicide, I’m not a big fan. But I admit the issue is a moral grey area and if the people of Oregon are comfortable with their law, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be allowed to remain on their books.

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