ASSISTED SUICIDE: House Passes Pain Relief Promotion Act
In a decision that "could change how doctors nationwide manage their patients' pain," the House yesterday passed the "Pain Relief Promotion Act" on a 271-156 vote. Approved with strong GOP support, the measure -- widely acknowledged as intending to render Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law ineffective -- prohibits physicians from using federally controlled substances, such as morphine, to hasten a patients death (Koch, USA Today, 10/28). Physicians in violation of the law would receive up to 20 years in prison. Although the "stated purpose" of the measure is "to promote pain management and palliative care without permitting assisted suicide and euthanasia," opponents contend that the bill will have the opposite effect (Pear, New York Times, 10/28). Instead of increasing the use of pain medication, the bill's opponents argue that physicians will be hesitant to prescribe narcotics for pain relief "for fear of being accused of assisting a suicide if the patient should die." But supporters of the bill point to a provision that "exempts a doctor from prosecution if he or she is trying to ease the pain of a seriously ill patient 'even if the use of such a substance may increase the risk of death.'" The bill also provides funds to establish a pain-relief study for terminally ill patients (Scully, Washington Times, 10/28). The bill won the key endorsement of the American Medical Association because it includes a provision that earmarks $5 million in grants for medical schools and hospices to establish training programs for doctors on easing pain for terminally ill patients (Hess, Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/28). Although the president took no formal stand on the legislation, a letter from the Department of Justice sent to Rep. Henry Hyde (R- IL), the bill's primary sponsor, last week took issue with the bill since it "interfere[s] with state policy-making in a particularly heavy-handed way" (Rovner, CongressDaily/A.M., 10/28). According to the bill, "the Attorney General shall not recognize any state law permitting assisted suicide or euthanasia," effectively overruling Atty. Gen. Janet Reno's decision last year to not take action against physicians who comply with Oregon's "Death With Dignity Act" (New York Times, 10/28). The bill now goes to the Senate, where it has strong backing from Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-OK). Supporters are confident they have enough votes to pass the measure, despite a likely filibuster by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D) (CongressDaily/A.M., 10/28).
What About Small Government?
All five of Oregon's representatives, including Republican Greg Walden, voted against the measure, the Boston Globe reports, (Kornblut, 10/28). Rep. David Wu (D-OR) said, "This is a day of shame for the U.S. Congress. In addition to overturning Oregon's law, this bill authorizes the Drug Enforcement Administration to second-guess physicians all across America, and its effect on pain management will be devastating" (New York Times, 10/28). Prior to the vote, Wu pleaded with his colleagues to "read the Oregon statute before you vote on it" (Hughes Associated Press, 10/28). Rep. Lois Capps, (D-CA) said that the bill would "likely lead to a rise in suicide as desperate patients seek relief from unbearable pain" (Washington Times, 10/28. But Rep. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a physician who voted for the measure, said, "This bill would encourage pain management even if the use of (narcotics) to do so unintentionally hastened death" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/28). In defense of the bill, Hyde said, "It comes down to this: Do we want to empower our doctors to intentionally kill patients?" He added, "We believe doctors should help people cope with the pain and terror of death, not thrust death upon them." Some said the vote is "the latest in a series of efforts by the GOP-controlled Congress to supersede state laws it finds distasteful." Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT), who voted against the bill, said, "It's ironic that the Republicans who always talk about sending power out of Washington are voting to overturn state law. It's unfortunate that we keep trying to impose our views on states" (Grunwald, Washington Post, 10/28). Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) agreed, adding "People who one day are for state's rights today want to preempt them" (Washington Times, 10/28).
After yesterday's vote, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) indicated that the state might "mount a constitutional challenge to a federal measure that tried to overturn" its physician-assisted suicide law, the New York Times reports. Jon Coney, the governor's spokesperson said, "The governor views the bill as a round about way of undermining Oregon's law." A legal challenge could ultimately wind up in the Supreme Court (Verhovek, 10/28). PBS' "Newshour with Jim Lehrer" featured Reps. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Steven Rothman (D-NJ), Henry Hyde (R-IL) and David Weldon (R-Fl) and Oregon Deputy Attorney General David Schuman last night.