Student Organizer

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Optional Handout #4B:

You have been assigned to consider how the issue of physician-assisted suicide illustrates controversy over federalism.

The other members of your group are:

Decide as a group who will have each of the following roles:
  • Discussion leader: This person will make sure that the group discussion is focused, and that all students are involved in the discussion and can contribute ideas.

  • Note taker: This person will be sure to record all ideas legibly.

  • Timekeeper: You have 15 minutes to complete this handout with your group and to prepare your presentation. The timekeeper should be sure to keep the work on schedule. He or she should also help the presenter stay on track for time.

  • Presenter: After your group discusses your answers, the presenter should be ready to give a three- to four-minute presentation about your group's decision.

NOTE: If your group has more than four students, you may add a second presenter and/or an artist to provide a visual aid for the spoken presentation.

After you have identified students to take each of these roles, read the information provided and answer the questions together as a group. At the end of your discussion, your group will present its findings to the class in a three- to four-minute presentation.

In 1997, the state of Oregon enacted the first law in the country that permitted doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of federally controlled drugs to terminally ill patients who wished to commit suicide. Critically ill patients often spend several years in pain until succumbing to the illness. The Death with Dignity Act intended to provide patients with an option to experience what some see as a more humane way to die. According to the legislation, a physician cannot personally inject the lethal drugs, but the patient may use the prescription to privately end his or her life. Since the law was enacted in 1997, 246 people in Oregon have committed drug-assisted suicide.

In 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft gave a directive that threatened to punish any doctor who prescribed a lethal dose of drugs for the purpose of assisted suicide. Ashcroft argued that the law violated the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1971. Under this interpretation of the CSA, it would be illegal to prescribe controlled substances, such as barbiturates, to end a patient's life.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court and Gonzales v. Oregon was heard in 2005.

Questions to Consider

Answer the following questions on a separate sheet of paper. The group should also take notes on the newsprint that has been provided.

1.) Provide a brief summary of the issue.

2.) Explain how the concept of federalism is evident in this issue.

3.) Look again at Handout #1: Federalism Classification Activity.

  • What do you think are the best arguments for Oregon to make about the power of the state to make and enforce its own laws related to this case?

  • What do you think are the best arguments for the federal government to make about how its powers apply in this case?

4.) What position would you take on this issue? Is it the right of the federal or state governments to make a decision on this issue? Why?

5.) What do you think the Supreme Court decided in 2006?

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