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Senate committee approves restriction on drugs used for assisted suicide

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Senate Judiciary Committee narrowly approved a bill 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 committee’s 10-8 margin in favor of the Pain Relief Promotion Act came because a Democrat, ranking minority member Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, joined nine Republicans to vote for the legislation. Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., and seven Democrats voted against it.

The House of Representatives passed the bill in October by a 271-156 vote.

The legislation faces a challenge on the Senate floor. Sen. Ron Wyden, D.-Ore., has threatened a filibuster, which would require 60 votes in opposition to bring about a floor vote.

The bill, which the panel approved April 27, 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.

Oregon is the sole state to legalize assisted suicide. All 47 people whose suicides have been reported as legally assisted since the law took effect in late 1997 used federally controlled drugs. The Death With Dignity Act allows a person who has less than six months to live, in the opinion of two doctors, to seek approval for a fatal dose of drugs. Physicians may prescribe, but not administer, the drugs.

The Pain Relief Promotion Act 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. 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 law.

Reno’s decision overturned a 1997 ruling by Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Thomas Constantine, who said the federal law still prohibits doctors, even in Oregon, from prescribing controlled substances, such as morphine and barbiturates, to aid in a suicide.

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.

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