WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno has given a major boost to the nation's first assisted suicide law by deciding that physicians may provide lethal doses of medicine to terminally ill patients without losing their licenses to write prescriptions.
Reno Friday overturned the position taken by the head of one of her own agencies, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which had said that doctors who prescribe drugs under Oregon's assisted-suicide law could face severe sanctions.
Sen. Ron Wyden said Reno told him of her decision Friday that the Justice Department will not interfere with Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law, the first of its kind in the United States.
Acting at the request of two Republican members of Congress, the DEA Administrator Thomas Constantine in November said any physicians who wrote a prescription for suicide would be violating the federal Controlled Substances law and would risk losing their licenses to prescribe drugs.
After nearly seven months of review, Reno decided Constantine was wrong, a Justice Department official said. While physicians are licensed by the states to practice medicine, the DEA registers doctors to prescribe drugs and the agency is responsible for enforcing that federal law.
Reno concluded that the federal law does not authorize the prosecution of a physician who complies with the Oregon law.
She said in a statement that such prosecutions "would be beyond the purpose" of the federal law, which provides criminal penalties for physicians who dispense controlled substances.
Despite the Justice Department's position in the Oregon case, Reno said Clinton still maintains his longstanding opposition to assisted suicide and any federal support for it.
So far, at least three known cases of physician-assisted suicide have occurred in Oregon. Reno's decision removes concerns that led one leading medical group in the state to urge doctors to wait until she made up her mind..
The U.S. Supreme Court a year ago upheld state laws that banned doctor-assisted suicide, but left open the question of whether states may adopt laws that allow the practice.
But in Congress, opponents of assisted suicide vowed to fight Reno's decision.
"There will be a massive, bi-partisan effort in Congress to reinstate the DEA's position that Janet Reno has erroneously and radically overturned," Congressman Christopher Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, said.
HOUSTON, June 5 /PRNewswire/ -- Attorney General Janet Reno announced today that the Justice Department would permit federally controlled dangerous drugs to be administered for lethal prescriptions by physicians to assist suicide. This decision overturns a ruling that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Administrator Thomas Constantine announced last November which stated that the DEA had been "persuaded that delivering, dispensing or prescribing a controlled substance with the intent of assisting suicide" would be a violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act, even when permitted under Oregon law. Federal law and regulations generally prohibit the use of such drugs except when prescribed by a physician for a "legitimate medical purpose."
"Attorney General Janet Reno's decision to overturn the ruling of the DEA to enforce the Controlled Substances Act is unfortunate because it will undoubtedly be interpreted by some to be a concession in favor of legalizing physician-assisted suicide in other states," said Dr. Joseph Graham, president of Texas Right to Life Committee, Inc. "This is not a 'victory for democracy' as Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said, but a victory for those who seek to further the culture of death by making it easier for doctors to kill their patients," Dr. Graham further stated.