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Oregon Editors Say:

Individual rights win a round Court's ruling on death with dignity preserves Oregon's law ' for now

The (McMinnville) News-Register

John Ashcroft got his comeuppance from the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices ruled that, when he served as attorney general, he lacked authority to order licenses taken from physicians who participated in Oregon's death with dignity law.

But a careful reading of the majority decision won't find a stick of opinion about the legality of the assisted-suicide law itself. The decision rests solely on the more technical question of the power granted the attorney general under the Controlled Substances Act.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing that the case rested on a value judgment that suicide is unacceptable and immoral. Six justices disagreed. Without written comment, newly appointed Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's most conservative members ' Scalia and Clarence Thomas ' in dissent. We had hoped for much better from Roberts.

We also wonder about the response of Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith. It's not that we object to his shift from longtime vigorous opposition to the death with dignity law. Definitely not.

Smith presumably still disagrees with the assisted-suicide law, but he bows to the majority decision of the court even though it spoke only to enforcement technicalities rather than the substance of the law. Still, his change likely means that dissenters will be unable to muster the votes needed for Congress to enact a ban, a possibility suggested in the decision.

— A strength of Oregon's assisted-suicide law is the protections embodied within it. A few more than 200 terminally ill patients have taken their lives in the years since the law's enactment. Many others have followed the procedure but stopped short of using the drugs provided, comforted by their mere presence.

A side effect of physician-assisted suicide has been the concentrated focus on pain management. Extended public debates, before passage of the initiative in 1994 and before it was reaffirmed in 1997, stimulated progress in that field. Sometimes, though, that pain cannot be managed effectively, and in Oregon, patients retain the option of dying with dignity.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, soon to be replaced by Sam Alito, voted with the majority. We don't know, but suspect, how Judge Alito might have ruled. This time, though, executive power lost to individual rights.