News Articles

Subcommittee OKs measure opposing assisted suicide, supporting pain relief

WASHINGTON (BP)–New legislation designed to prevent the use of federally regulated drugs for physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia while at the same time promoting pain management in the terminally ill has cleared a congressional subcommittee.
The Constitution Subcommittee of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee recently approved by voice vote the Pain Relief Promotion Act. 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 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.
The House members who voted for the bill “should be applauded,” said Ben Mitchell, consultant on biomedical and life issues for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
The bill is “a two-pronged approach to a double-edged problem,” said Mitchell, who is a professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. “One problem is pain; the other is a barbaric answer to pain, namely, assisted suicide and euthanasia.
“When you think about it, it just makes sense. There’s not a single drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in killing a human being. Drugs are designed to treat illness, not kill patients. The bill introduces a little bit of sanity into the culture of death.
“This will not stop the euthanasia and assisted-suicide movement in this country, but it will slow it down a bit.”
The bill, H.R. 2260, is a secondary 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 DEA 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 Drug Enforcement Administration 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 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.