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Attorney general lifts federal threat to Oregon doctors assisting in suicide

WASHINGTON (BP)–U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has lifted the federal threat to Oregon physicians who prescribe drugs to assist in suicides, evoking sharp rebukes from a leading senator and pro-life organizations.
Reno ruled the Controlled Substances Act does not authorize the federal government to take action against doctors who prescribe medication for terminally ill people who desire to take their lives under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act. In so doing, she overruled U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Thomas Constantine, who announced in November the prescription of controlled substances for suicide would be considered a violation of the federal law.
Under the country’s only assisted-suicide law, a person who is judged by two doctors to have less than six months to live may request a prescription for drugs to take his life. The federal law regulating the distribution of drugs prohibits the prescription of controlled substances for reasons outside standard medical practice.
“There is no evidence that Congress, in the CSA, intended to displace the states as the primary regulators of the medical profession, or to override a state’s determination as to what constitutes legitimate medical practice in the absence of a federal law prohibiting that practice,” Reno said in a June 5 statement announcing her ruling.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R.-Utah, rejected Reno’s interpretation.
“Regardless of her motivation, the attorney general does not maintain the authority to ignore or change federal laws which are clear and constitutional,” Hatch said in a written statement. “If the Clinton administration believes that there should be an exception to the Controlled Substances Act in order to facilitate state-sanctioned, physician-assisted suicide, then it should present such a proposal to Congress for consideration.”
Southern Baptist bioethics specialist Ben Mitchell called Reno’s action “another step down the slippery slope into the moral abyss of the culture of death.”
“There is no drug in our medical arsenal which has as its purpose to end the life of the patient, and therefore controlled substances should not be permitted to be used in assisted suicide,” said Mitchell, ethics professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and consultant to the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“Furthermore, Ms. Reno needs to go back and read German history. The complicity of the government and even urging of the government in the euthanasia program of Nazi Germany was horrendous, and her decision signals the complicity of the government in the death of its own citizens. This is an awful decision, and Congress should turn it back immediately.”
In a written statement, Richard Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said by ruling “Oregon physicians may use federally regulated drugs to assist their patients’ suicides, the Justice Department has abdicated its responsibility to protect vulnerable people from deadly harm. (The DEA’s interpretation) is the morally and legally responsible course for our federal government to take.”
Oregon voters first approved the law in a 1994 initiative, but legal challenges blocked its enforcement for three years. Voters reaffirmed the law by a wider margin in 1997. The first confirmed death by assisted suicide came in late March of this year.
In her statement, Reno reiterated that President Clinton opposes assisted suicide and any federal funding of it. Last year, the president signed into law legislation banning federal funding of assisted suicide.
At its 1996 meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution condemning assisted suicide.