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House thwarts assisted suicide, encourages pain management

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. House of Representatives convincingly approved legislation that would block the use of federally regulated drugs for physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia and at the same time promote pain management in the terminally ill.
The House passed the Pain Relief Promotion Act Oct. 27 in a 271-156 vote. The legislative response to the assisted-suicide movement gained support from 200 Republicans and 71 Democrats.
The bill supports the use of federally controlled substances for the alleviation of pain, even if the risk of death increases in the process, but it clarifies federally controlled drugs may not be used intentionally to assist in a suicide. The measure says the U.S. attorney general may not make exceptions in the case of a state that permits assisted suicide or euthanasia. It also establishes a program at the Department of Health and Human Services for research into pain management.
It was proposed as a result of a 1998 ruling by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno enabling federally regulated drugs to be used in Oregon to help people commit suicide. Oregon is the only state that allows physician-assisted suicide.
Southern Baptist bioethics specialist Ben Mitchell called the vote “a heartening move in the direction of protecting patients against both intractable suffering and premature death.”
“The assisted-suicide juggernaut is moving so swiftly in some segments of American society that it is refreshing to see a sensible alternative like the PRPA make its way toward becoming law. This is a necessary piece of legislation,” said Mitchell, a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and an assistant professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
The bill “will enable doctors to kill the pain, not the patient,” said Burke Balch, medical ethics director for the National Right to Life Committee, in a written release.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D.-Ore., has threatened to filibuster in order to block the legislation in the other house, but it appears he may be unable to prevent it from passage.
House opponents of the legislation argued the bill would have a chilling effect on pain relief by doctors and was a violation of states’ rights. The bill’s supporters contended it would actually encourage aggressive pain management and Congress consistently adopts legislation that trumps state laws.
Representatives defeated two proposed changes, one an amendment by Rep. Bobby Scott, D.-Va., and the other a substitute version by Rep. Nancy Johnson, R.-Ct., that would have had the effect of gutting the bill.
The measure, H.R. 2260, is a second congressional attempt to negate Reno’s controversial decision. She 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.
Reno’s decision overturned a 1997 ruling by Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Thomas Constantine. 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 Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act, which was proposed last year in response to Reno’s ruling, failed to gain the necessary support in Congress. That bill would have revoked a doctor’s DEA registration if he prescribed federally regulated drugs for the purpose of assisted suicide or euthanasia. A DEA registration enables a doctor to prescribe federally controlled drugs.
Unlike that bill, the Pain Relief Promotion Act received the endorsement of the American Medical Association, as well as the National Hospice Organization and other hospice groups.
Reps. Henry Hyde, R.-Ill., and Bart Stupak, D.-Mich., are the lead sponsors in the House, while Sens. Don Nickles, R.-Okla., and Joseph Lieberman, D.-Ct., are the leaders of the effort in the other house. The bill numbers are H.R. 2260 in the House and S.1272 in the Senate.
Oregon’s 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. Fifteen people died by assisted suicide in 1998, the state’s first full year after the law went into effect.
In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously states could prohibit assisted suicide, but its action did not prevent states from legalizing the practice. In the same year, President Clinton signed into law legislation banning federal funding of assisted suicide.
At its 1996 meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution condemning assisted suicide.