Ashcroft vs. Constitution

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Last week, in one of the least-surprising rulings in its history, the Michigan Court of Appeals denied Jack Kevorkian’s appeal of his 1999 murder conviction.

There are some grounds to think he deserves a new trial, based on what happened in the courtroom. It is also true, as attorney Geoffrey Fieger often notes, that Kevorkian is never going to get a fair hearing from Michigan’s highly politicized legal system.

Yet anyone who thinks he should stay locked up has logic on his or her side, too. Kevorkian openly defied the law, insisted on being his own attorney and told me the day the verdict came down that he would prefer to be convicted.

He knew there was a big chance the jury would find his televised euthanasia a crime, and now he shouldn’t be surprised the authorities want him to do the time.

But the situation is entirely different in Oregon, where John Ashcroft, the worst U.S. attorney general in memory (yes, including John Mitchell), is working hard to prove that he is no conservative at all, but a constitutional terrorist.

I don’t use those words lightly.

Back when Kevorkian was helping dozens of people commit assisted suicide here, many of his opponents said if he really felt what he was doing was so right, he should try to get legislation passed to make it legal.

That’s exactly what happened in Oregon, where the voters passed a “Death With Dignity Act” by a 51 percent-49 percent margin five years ago. Right-to-lifers in that state’s Legislature forced a second vote. Angry voters then passed it by a landslide.

Oregon’s act is no license to kill. It has strict rules and stricter safeguards and allows terminally ill adults to get and take the drugs needed to painlessly end their lives. Very few — less than 100 — have done so in more than four years.

Supposedly, conservatives believe in leaving most powers to state and local governments, and when possible leaving citizens free to determine their destinies.

But John Ashcroft doesn’t care about that. Nor does he care that the majority of voters in Oregon clearly want this option. Our attorney general evidently hears the voice of the fundamentalist Protestant God through the fillings in his teeth, and it has told him to stop assisted suicide in Oregon, no matter what the law says or people think.

Accordingly, with ham-handed brutality, he has announced that the Department of Justice will try to revoke the licenses of Oregon doctors who do nothing more than follow their state’s law by prescribing federally controlled lethal drugs for dying patients.

How can he do that? Assisted suicide is not “a legitimate medical purpose,” says Imam Ashcroft, a self-styled lay ayatollah of the Assembly of God. Like most religious zealots, including those he is anxious to kill in Afghanistan, he has no medical training.

But why do you need specialized knowledge when Allah — oops — Jesus speaks directly to you? Actually, if Ashcroft gets his way, the real victims may not be the handful of horribly suffering who want a soft landing. Most of those who are harmed could well be those who only want their horrible pain controlled.

A published report quotes Dr. Peter Rasmussen, a cancer specialist in Oregon, as saying that Ashcroft’s ban, if allowed to stand, “will have a chilling effect” on pain management. Doctors may fear Drug Enforcement Administration agents will be spying on them, ready to pounce if one of their medicated patients should happen to die.

Rather than run the risk, some may let ill patients writhe in pain. That would be perfectly legal and acceptable in the world of Ayatollah Ashcroft. And that’s what used to happen all the time, before assisted suicide became an issue.

In the end, Jack Kevorkian’s greatest contribution may have been that he forced too-often callous doctors to get serious about working harder to relieve the pain of their suffering patients.

Doctors, by the way, have told me that they sometimes find it hard to judge just the right level of medication in some cases. Perhaps they can ask the all-knowing Ashcroft.

There is a touch of the supernatural about Ashcroft, you know. He didn’t raise Lazarus, but last year, he became the first U.S. senator in history to be defeated by a dead man. The voters tossed him out even though they knew that the dead candidate’s widow, an elderly woman with no political experience, would be appointed if they voted for her husband, who had been killed in a campaign plane crash.

Fortunately, a federal judge has extended a court order that will block Ashcroft’s attempt to trash the Constitution for an estimated four months, at which time a trial will be held in federal court in Portland.

That should be enough time for every doctor and every person who cares about the Constitution to let our president know how they feel about Ashcroft’s outrage.

Incidentally, if you haven’t noticed, the attorney general ought to have more than enough to do right now without illegally meddling in the affairs of state. Last time I checked, we were at war, bio-terrorist attacks are reality, and the Department of Justice seems to have no more clue than my collie dog Darby as to where the germs are coming from.

Let’s give Oregon’s governor the last word on this: “The attorney general is supposed to be figuring out who is responsible for the anthrax,” a very annoyed John Kitzhaber said. “To introduce this divisive issue at this time is just, to me, unthinkable.”

Ashcroft would never admit it, but the governor might know best. True, he isn’t a member of the Assembly of God. He does, however, just happen to be a medical doctor.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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