Threat to Ore. assisted-suicide law?

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden wrote President Bush yesterday, urging him not to alter Oregon's first-in-the-nation law allowing physician-assisted suicide.

Wyden, D-Ore., said he was hearing rumors from "a number of federal-agency and other sources" that Bush's political appointees are considering actions that would effectively overturn Oregon's voter-approved Death with Dignity Act.

"I am writing to urge you to avoid taking any unnecessarily divisive actions ... with regard to Oregon's physician-assisted suicide laws," Wyden wrote.

Josh Kardon, Wyden's chief of staff, said the senator's office had been told that such a move has been in the works for months but may have been delayed because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

White House spokesman Ken Lisaius referred inquiries to the Justice Department, which did not return calls seeking comment.

In 1998, then-Attorney General Janet Reno agitated assisted-suicide opponents by deciding that federal drug agents cannot take action against doctors who prescribe lethal doses of federally controlled substances under Oregon's law. The issue stemmed from a debate about whether the federal government, under the Controlled Substances Act, could stop Oregon doctors.

Some conservative, religious and anti-abortion groups have made it no secret that they want the Bush administration to reverse Reno's decision, perhaps by executive order or a new Justice Department ruling.

"This decision, if made, would not be grounded in someone's personal opposition to euthanasia," said David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee. "It would be grounded in a determination that federal administrative law should be applied evenly in all 50 states."

O'Steen wouldn't comment on any conversations between his organization and the administration.

At least 70 terminally ill people have ended their lives under a doctor's care since the landmark Oregon law took effect in October 1997, each using a federally controlled drug, such as a barbiturate. All of them met specific criteria under the law to request a prescription.

"Quietly reinterpreting the law will likely be successfully challenged in the courts," Wyden told the president, "and numerous experts have argued that such an action could have a chilling effect on pain relief throughout the nation."

Last year Wyden successfully fought a bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., that would have revoked the prescription powers of doctors who use federally controlled substances to help patients die.

On the campaign trail, Bush said he would have supported the legislation. U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., who also backed the Nickles bill, has said that eventually the Bush administration "is going to enforce the law as it had been for 30 years prior to Janet Reno."

However, Smith's spokesman, Chris Matthews, said it was unclear to him when the administration would act.