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House panel OKs punishing physician-assisted suicide

WASHINGTON (BP)–A congressional subcommittee approved legislation July 22 to clarify federally regulated drugs may not be used to assist in suicides.
The Constitution Subcommittee of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted 6-5 in favor of the Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act. The bill would revoke a doctor’s Drug Enforcement Administration registration if he prescribes federally regulated drugs in order to help a person commit suicide. A DEA registration enables a doctor to prescribe federally controlled drugs.
The bill was introduced in response to a June 5 ruling by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno clearing the way for doctors to use federally regulated drugs to help people commit suicide in Oregon, the only state that allows assisted suicide. Reno ruled the federal 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.
Reno’s decision overturned a ruling by DEA Administrator Thomas Constantine in November. The day after Oregon voters reaffirmed an assisted-suicide law, Constantine announced the federal law still prohibits doctors from prescribing controlled substances, such as morphine and barbiturates, to aid in a suicide.
The bill, with Rep. Henry Hyde, R.-Ill., and Sen. Don Nickles, R.-Okla., as chief sponsors, also would amend the Controlled Substances Act so that the CSA is not applicable when the prescription of a drug for the purpose of relieving pain results unintentionally in hastening the death of a patient.
In the subcommittee mark-up, Rep. Charles Canady, R.-Fla., chairman of the panel, introduced an amendment in an attempt to strengthen protection for doctors who are using drugs for pain relief of terminally ill patients. The panel approved the measure, which would require the attorney general to show “clear and convincing evidence” a physician intended to assist with a suicide.
The bill also would require the attorney general to appoint a board of experts in pain management to decide, when necessary, whether doctors have acted properly.
The bill number is H.R. 4006.
At its 1996 meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution condemning assisted suicide.
Oregon voters first approved a law legalizing assisted suicide in a 1994 initiative, but legal challenges blocked its enforcement for three years. The voters reaffirmed the law by a wider margin in 1997. The first confirmed death by assisted suicide came in late March of this year.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously states could prohibit assisted suicide, but its action did not prevent states from legalizing the practice.
In her June statement, Reno reiterated 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.