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SBC bioethicist applauds committee for votes on sanctity-of-life measures


WASHINGTON (BP)–A Southern Baptist bioethics specialist applauded a U.S. House of Representatives committee for approving legislation providing protection for people at both ends of life.
The House Judiciary Committee moved forward both the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and the Pain Relief Promotion Act. The committee approved the unborn victims bill with a 14-11 party-line vote, with Republicans in the majority. It adopted the pain relief measure with a 16-9 vote.
The Unborn Victims of Violence Act would criminalize violence resulting in injury or death to an unborn child during the commission of a federal offense. The punishment for such an offense against an unborn child would correspond to the penalty provided if the same harm were inflicted upon the mother. The bill would not restrict abortion.
“The bill is not about partisanship but about the kind of society we want to live in,” said Ben Mitchell, consultant on biomedical and life issues for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “A civilized society will protect its most vulnerable members. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the compassionate thing to do.”
The Pain Relief Promotion Act 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 regulated 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.
“We need this legislation immediately,” said Mitchell, professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. “Doctors should never participate in assisted suicide or euthanasia, but neither should they be fearful of treating patients’ pain adequately.”
The bill, H.R. 2260, was fashioned as a response to a 1998 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 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.
Rep. Henry Hyde, R.-Ill., introduced the Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act last year. 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. The legislation failed to make it through Congress.
The Pain Relief Promotion Act, also introduced by Hyde, takes a different approach and may have a better chance of passage.
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 first full year after the state 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.
The Unborn Victims of Violence Act, H.R. 2436, is being supported by pro-life organizations and opposed by abortion-rights groups, even though it would not alter federal abortion policy, which permits the procedure, in effect, for any reason throughout a woman’s pregnancy.
Rep. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., is the chief sponsor of the bill.
Four men, including the father of the child, recently were charged with capital murder under similar legislation in Arkansas in the death of an unborn girl. The father hired the others to attack his girlfriend, who was nine months pregnant, in such a way as to kill the child.
The Judiciary Committee approved both bills Sept. 14.