A ground-breaking Oregon law that would let doctors prescribe deadly doses of medication for terminally ill people who want to end their lives was struck down by a federal judge Thursday because it fails to ensure equal protection under the Constitution.
The law “withholds from terminally ill citizens the same protections from suicide the majority enjoys,” wrote U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan in a 40-page opinion. In so doing, it provides “little assurance that only competent terminally ill persons will voluntarily die.”
Oregon voters approved ballot Measure 16, the Death With Dignity Act, by a slim margin last November, but it has been held in check by Hogan since December, just before it was to take effect. The act allows any adult Oregon resident with less than six months to live to ask a doctor for “a prescription for drugs to end life.” At least two different physicians must agree on the patient’s prognosis.
The law was challenged by a group of doctors, terminally ill patients and the owner of a nursing home. James Bopp Jr., an Indiana attorney who represented the plaintiffs, hailed the decision. “Our concern was that people seek suicide during depression. Measure 16 had inadequate provisions to protect those [terminally ill] who are susceptible to depression.”
He said he would be surprised if a law could be designed with adequate safeguards. “Rational people don’t seek suicide,” he said. “If [the law] was limited to rational people, you’d have almost nobody seeking it.”
The decision came more than three months after a hearing on the measure’s constitutionality. Hogan recently had come under criticism from supporters of the law who felt further delay in a ruling was increasing the anxiety of some terminally ill Oregonians. On Monday, a Portland AIDS patient asked Hogan for a special exception to acquire a lethal drug prescription.
The state of Oregon joined in defense of Measure 16, and had argued that it was approved by the voters and violated no existing state or federal laws. But Hogan’s opinion countered that popular support alone doesn’t sanction a law and “certain fundamental rights may not be dispensed with by a majority vote.”
Steven Bushong, assistant state attorney general, said: “We were not surprised at the ruling.” He said the state had not decided whether to appeal the decision.