Supreme Court Case Gonzales V Oregon

Brittany Maynard had an amazing life; she traveled around the world, volunteered at local orphanages, graduated University of California: Berkeley, and married her true love. A normal life. Suddenly, massive headaches began to frequently disrupt Brittany’s everyday life. Doctors initially thought Brittany had a small tumor that would allow her to live another three to five years. After more tests, Brittany was diagnosed with a large brain tumor the shortened her prognosis to six months. The knowledge of a shortened lifespan made the whole family urgently search for a treatment. However, no treatment was possible to maintain her quality of life. Brittany determined that physician assisted suicide was the best option available. The ability to obtain physician assisted suicide was questioned earlier to be legal in the state of Oregon. Therefore, the family moved from California to Oregon in advance of the set day of death (Egan, 2014). Within the state of Oregon, physician assisted suicide was limited by federal regulation, which was thought to be controversial. This led to the Supreme Court case Gonzales v. Oregon (Mathes, 2006). The main premise of assisted suicide and the federal regulation and monitoring of the medical assistance provided was questioned in the Supreme Court.

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The Controlled Substance Act, passed in 1970, requires physicians and doctors to obtain a federal registration to prescribe or dispense controlled substances (Mathes, 2006). This was thought to control the substance abuse issues in the country according to law makers. The Attorney General was given the power determine which substances were legal or illegal under the Controlled Substance Act schedules, or categories (Bostrom, 2006). Twenty years later, the Death with Dignity Act of 1994 allowed physicians in Oregon to assist patients seeking care in the state with suicide by prescribing lethal drugs, commonly barbiturates, as long as the patient meets he following conditions: the patient being 18 years old to make an informed decision; patient has a terminal illness that is thought to result in death within the next six months; patient must have diagnosis confirmed by other medical professionals; patient is informed of other options rather than death; family needs to be aware of the decision of assisted suicide from patient. Within the assisted suicide process, the physician only prescribes the lethal drugs and does not take part in consumption of the medications (Mathes, 2006). Physicians had mixed views on the act as assisted suicide procedure’s popularity increased after it had become legal. As of 2006, two hundred and forty-six patients had undergone the physician assisted suicide process (Westefeld et al 2009). A Supreme Court case in 1997, Washington v Glucksberg, questioned whether physician assisted suicide was constitutional. The court determined that the right to assisted suicide was within the constitutional range of topics for states, specifically the state of Washington, to create (Teitelbaum et al. 2007). Another case, Vacco v. Quill, questioned whether the right to assisted suicide denied equal protection. The Supreme Court ruled that the dying do not have the same equal protection from the Constitution than normal people. These two Supreme Court cases declared that individual states can determine their own laws on physician assisted suicide as it does not violate the Constitution (Mathes, 2006).

The Attorney General Janet Reno in the late 1990’s was advised by representatives from Congress to declare the Death with Dignity Act as a illegitimate medical usage of drugs and would therefore violate the Controlled Substances Act. Reno refused to do so as this action would change the control of the state’s medical system. In 1998, a bill was introduced in Oregon that would allow the attorney general to override any physician registration that assisted in the suicide or euthanasia of any individual with the distribution of medications, or the improper usage of the medical practice. This bill was never passed in Congress. The next year, members of Congress made a similar bill to previous one that would not allow the attorney general to determine whether a registered practitioner would dispense medications for legitimate purposes that the public interest would approve of or support illegitimate medical procedures. This bill would also not pass Congress. At the turn of the century, John Ashcroft was named the new attorney general, who had previously advocated in congress to call the Death with Dignity Act an illegitimate usage on Controlled Substance Act. One of Ashcroft’s first actions as attorney general was making a rule that made assisted suicide an illegitimate medical practice; however, this procedure directly violated the Controlled Substance Act. This change in perspective of the Death with Dignity Act gained opposing views which ultimately lead to a lawsuit (Mathes, 2006).

Medical practitioners, including a physician and pharmacist, along with other terminally ill patients challenged the rule in Court (Mathes, 2006). Oregon prosecuted the attorney general for overstepping the powers granted to that position (Teitelbaum et al. 2007). Ashcroft stepped down as attorney general and was replaced by Alberto Gonzales, who became the namesake of the case. The attorney general argued that he was only exercising powers given to his position in the state government that was granted to him from the Controlled Substance Act (Mathes, 2006). In lower level courts, the attorney general was favored (Teitelbaum et al. 2007). In the Supreme Court, the ruling changed to 6-3 in favor of the defense as federal representatives lacking medical instruction should not be allowed to concern themselves with medical procedures that concern the health and safety of the community. Penalizing experienced physicians because of their practice was seen as an inappropriate action from the attorney general. It was also determined that the law was not made to disrupt the organization of power between the state and nation (Mathes, 2006). This case has made various precedents for other states. The main standard was determined that government officials, regardless of title, should be allowed to exercise authority on medical care or procedures. The power of setting public health standards will continue to be a reserved power of the state. Although the Court must determine how far the federal government may impose itself on the standards (Teitelbaum et al. 2007).

Government interference in medical procedures has become a questionable topic. Acts within the state of Oregon, such as the Death with Dignity Act and Controlled Substance Act, are uncommon in the United States and therefore unique regulations and monitoring. However, this rare circumstance resulted in government officials constantly watching the procedure and using their power to support or oppose the procedure. Oregon specifically addressed the problem as the attorney general used his power to influence the physician assisted suicide procedure. By challenging the ruling of the attorney general, the defendant hoped to make a definitive statement of how far the government may influence the medical process. With the Gonzales v. Oregon case, the Supreme Court declared that federal officials without medical knowledge should not be able to change medical procedures and practitioners, which is then generalized to other medical practices. Authority does not enable a government official to use their knowledge on a foreign topic. Gonzales v. Oregon made a clear division between health care procedure and government control.

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Supreme Court Case Gonzales v Oregon. (2019, Nov 07). Retrieved September 27, 2022 , from
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