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High court allows physician-assisted suicide

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Physician-assisted suicide is legal in Oregon.

So declared the US Supreme Court on Tuesday in deciding that Oregon's Death With Dignity Act is not barred by the Bush administration's interpretation of federal drug laws.

The 6-to-3 ruling allows Oregon residents who are mentally competent and diagnosed as terminally ill to continue to have the option of asking a physician to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs. More than 200 Oregon residents have relied on the law to end their lives since 1997, when the measure took effect.

The high court ruling also opens the door for other states considering enacting similar assisted death laws, setting the stage for bitter fights ahead.

"We are very confident that a number of states throughout the country will now move forward in attempts to replicate Oregon's very specific law," says Robert Kenneth, spokesman for the Death With Dignity National Center. Both Vermont and California have bills pending in their legislatures, and Washington State is considering drafting a similar law.

Opponents of assisted-suicide say the high court ruling is unlikely to trigger a rush to adopt similar laws in other states.

"The movement has been moribund. They had been unable to move the agenda forward throughout the country like they thought they would, after Oregon legalized assisted suicide in 1994," says Wesley Smith of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted last November showed the public almost evenly divided on physician-assisted suicide, with 46 percent in favor of laws permitting it and 45 percent opposed. [Editor's note: The original version described the wrong findings from the Pew Research Center survey.]

In reaching its determination, the high court said former Attorney General John Ashcroft overstepped his authority in November 2001 when he rewrote regulations under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) making it illegal for Oregon doctors to prescribe drugs to help a patient die.

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