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House panel passes bill penalizing doctors who prescribe lethal doses

WASHINGTON (BP)–A congressional committee approved a bill punishing doctors who prescribe federally regulated drugs in order to help a person commit suicide.
The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee passed by voice vote Aug. 4 the Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act. The bill would revoke a doctor’s Drug Enforcement Administration registration if he prescribes federally regulated drugs for the purpose of assisted suicide or euthanasia. A DEA registration enables a doctor to prescribe federally controlled drugs.
A vote on the House floor is expected after the August recess, which ends Sept. 8.
The Republican-controlled committee turned back Democratic attempts to weaken the bill through amendments.
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, introduced by Rep. Henry Hyde, R.-Ill., and Rep. James Oberstar, D.-Minn., in the House and Sen. Don Nickles, R.-Okla., in the Senate, would amend the Controlled Substances Act. It also says 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.
The bill would require the U.S. attorney general to appoint a board of experts in pain management to decide, when necessary, whether doctors have acted properly. The measure would enable a doctor to appeal to the board if the attorney general revokes his DEA registration. The attorney general would be required to consider the board’s opinion.
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 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.