Should Congress prohibit "right-to-die" measures?
By John Cloud and Sally B. Donnelly
September 20, 1999
Web posted at: 3:49 p.m. EDT (1949 GMT)
It took years for Oregonians to settle the prickly question of
whether doctors should be able to help people kill themselves.
But a majority of the state's voters made clear--twice--that they
favor physician-assisted suicides, at least in the limited cases
of terminally ill people expected to live less than six months.
The initiatives that approved assisted suicide had all the messy
attributes of democracy, including emotional debate and dumb
ads, but the state has carried out the law with care. Oregon
hasn't become a Hemlock Society convention--only 15 people
committed suicide with a doctor's help last year--and other
states are mulling similar laws.
Now Congress is hurrying to ruin the people's work. The House
Judiciary Committee passed a bill last week that would
essentially outlaw assisted suicides. The so-called Pain Relief
Promotion Act sounds hilariously uncontroversial, but in fact it
would send doctors to jail for life for prescribing controlled
substances with the intent of hastening death. The bill now goes
to the entire House. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden has promised a
filibuster in the Senate; the President has taken no stand.
Supporters, including Roman Catholic bishops and right-to-lifers,
say the bill would reduce demand for assisted suicide by making
clear that doctors can treat pain aggressively without being
overly scrutinized; moreover, physicians wouldn't be prosecuted
if they accidentally killed with huge doses of drugs. But foes,
including patient advocates, say it would be too hard to
determine if a death caused by painkillers was intentional or
not. So cops will pry into all cases. "If this bill is passed,"
says Dr. Nancy Crumpacker, a cancer specialist, "doctors will
never again be able to treat suffering people without fear of
--By John Cloud and Sally B. Donnelly
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Cover Date: September 27, 1999