Jack Pollock
When drawing up the blueprints for democracy, Thomas Jefferson and his cohorts made certain that individual states would have their own freedoms separate from the controlling forces of a central federal government. That notion of autonomy and state sovereignty has always been protected as the central core to democracy. In a recent Supreme Court decision telling the federal government to keep their noses out of states' business, Justice Kennedy penned that state governments must be allowed to "perform their roles as laboratories for experimentation."

But last week, that bedrock principle and Oregon's autonomy were broadsided, as Attorney General John Ashcroft took a recess from combating anthrax and turned his attention to Oregon. On Tuesday, Ashcroft authorized federal law enforcement agents to take legal action against doctors who prescribe lethal drugs for terminally ill patients--an allowance that effectively guts Oregon's unique Death with Dignity Act.

"They're frustrated by the inconvenience of the democratic process," Sen. Ron Wyden said in a press conference the day following Ashcroft's announcement. "They've tossed the ballots of Oregon voters in the trash can."

In 1994, Oregon voters first passed the so-called Death with Dignity Act. Under the law--the only one of its kind in the world--with the consent of two physicians, a terminally ill patient may take lethal drugs to end his or her life. Saddled with lawsuits, it took until 1997 for the law to take full effect. But since then, according to records from the Oregon Health Division, 70 people--all suffering from terminal cancer--have legally killed themselves in this manner.

During the early months of Bush's presidency, many liberals feared that the new administration would yank the leash on liberal social policies and freewheeling states like Oregon. For the time being, however, it seemed as if Bush's administration had its attention trained on terrorism. As horrific as the terrorist attacks were, many liberals were sighing with relief that liberal social programs and morality issues--like abortion, medicinal marijuana, gay marriages and doctor-assisted suicide--were being ignored.

According to constitutional law experts and state government officials, last week's unanticipated announcement from Ashcroft was an ambush. Many expressed fear that the attempt to nullify Oregon's Death with Dignity Act may be a shot across the bow for states' sovereignty and may signal the beginning of a new war by the Bush administration. In other words, this could be an attempt to steal political power away from states and their citizens and establish a new hold on the morality of the country.

Others expressed concern that Oregon may be a sacrificial lamb for Bush to regain faith from the conservative right. This summer, President Bush proscribed concessions for stem-cell research, a move that angered many on the far right. Taking away doctor-assisted suicide from Oregon would re-establish the Bush administration's conservative stance in the murky territory of medicine, ethics, and morality.

When Bush took office last January, state powers were perhaps at their highest point since pre-Civil War years. With programs like Oregon's Death with Dignity Act and Vermont's legalization of gay marriages, states were fulfilling roles as think tanks for new social policies. But many feared that the morally conservative Bush would use the White House to homogenize state governments and rein in liberal state policies.

The day following Ashcroft's announcement, Governor Kitzhaber and several Oregon representatives bristled at this intrusion into state politics and self-governing. State Attorney General Hardy Myers immediately filed a request in federal court for a temporary restraining order.

Last December, many Oregon politicians feared that a Republican-controlled Congress would attempt to thwart the Death with Dignity Act, and requested legal experts to draft arguments against the federal government at that time. With legal papers already in order, the State of Oregon was able to respond quickly.

On Thursday, federal judge Robert Jones granted a restraining order, which will remain in effect until November 20. After that time, legal experts predict that the issue of whether Oregon should be allowed to retain its doctor-assisted suicide policy will fray into an all-out legal war between the Bush administration and representatives for Oregon. Ultimately, the stakes will be far greater; this could be the first in many battles over a state's right to determine its own social policies.