Senator Blocks Assisted Suicide Bill Stopping Use of Narcotics to Kill People

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Sep 6, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Senator Blocks Assisted Suicide Bill Stopping Use of Narcotics to Kill People Email this article
Printer friendly page

by Steven Ertelt Editor
September 6
, 2006

Washington, DC ( — Congress returned from its August recess on Tuesday and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden wasted no time in blocking a bill meant to prohibit the use of federally controlled drugs in assisted suicides. All of the assisted suicides in the state of Oregon, the only one to legalize the practice, involve such drugs.

Wyden, a Democrat, put a block on a bill sponsored by Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican, to allow the federal government to prohibit the use of the drugs in assisted suicides.

His move means Wyden is prepared to filibuster the bill and Brownback will need to find 60 votes to cut off debate and allow a vote on the legislation.

In a speech on the Senate floor announcing his move, Wyden said he opposed the measure and indicated Oregon should have the right to legalize assisted suicide if it wants to do so.

"What is ironic is that some who come to floor of Senate to talk about states’ rights are essentially saying they only believe in states’ rights if they think the state is right," he said.

Brownback said Wyden had a right to block the bill. He told the Associated Press he didn’t expect the bill to become law this year but said the Senate should consider the measure — which he called "a crucial topic for the country to discuss."

"I’ll look forward to debating the topic with him," Brownback said.

Brownback also told AP that the issue isn’t just a state’s rights one because the federal government has a right to prohibit the use of certain narcotics that aren’t use for a legitimate medical purpose.

"This is a federal issue regarding the use of federally licensed pharmaceutical substances to be used for assisted suicide," he said. "It’s a big national debate. It applies not just to Oregon, but to what we as a nation are going to allow federally controlled substances to be used for."

The bill is in response to a Supreme Court decision in a long battle the Bush administration has waged to prohibit the use of certain narcotics to kill people in Oregon.

In a 6-3 decision, the high court ruled that the Bush administration could not use the Controlled Substances Act, which governs illegal narcotics, to stop the use of such drugs in assisted suicides.

However, the decision paved the way for Congressional legislation to accomplish the same purpose and Sen. Sam Brownback hopes to promote a bill to do that.

“When the law permits killing as a medical ‘treatment,’ society’s moral guidelines are blurred, and killing could gain acceptance as a solution for the chronically ill or vulnerable,” Brownback said in a statement obtained.

But Brownback may have problems getting the 60 votes needed to stop debate or the 50 necessary to approve the measure.

He will have to convince lawmakers like Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican, who opposes assisted suicide but says he stands by the high court’s decision.

"I accept the Supreme Court’s decision and Congress should do the same," he told AP.

Brownback’s bill already enjoys the support of pro-life groups, including a national organization for doctors and other medical professionals who are Christians. But, pro-euthanasia groups like Compassion & Choices, will oppose it.

Kathryn Tucker, legal director for C&C says the bill would make physicians more fearful of treating patient pain.

"We already know physicians undertreat pain. It’s a serious problem, and we should not exacerbate that by giving physicians reason to be afraid to give dying patients comfort from pain," she said.

Brownback disputes that saying the bill would not unfairly punish doctors who are trying to provide patients with legitimate pain relief medication.

"By only penalizing doctors for using a federally controlled substance for the stated or undisputed purpose of assisted suicide … the bill does not constrain doctors from offering palliative care that brings pain relief to patients," he explained.

Last May, Brownback chaired a Judiciary Committee hearing to examine the impact of assisted suicide in places where it has been widely practiced.

Several experts testified that in countries like the Netherlands and Belgium, where assisted suicide is legal, doctors have started experimenting with euthanasia and infanticide.

A September 2005 article in the U.K. medical journal The Lancet reported that half of the newborn babies who died in Flanders, Belgium between August 1999 and July 2000 were “helped” in that regard by their doctors.

“The American Medical Association and disability rights groups are strongly opposed to physician-assisted suicide because it is antithetical to the doctor’s role as a healer and it jeopardizes the ability of the infirm and helpless to defend themselves," Brownback said.

"I doubt Americans want the government to decide when life is worth preserving and when life can be destroyed," he concluded.

In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that patients had a right to refuse lifesaving medical treatment and, in 1997, the court ruled unanimously that there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide but that states may ban or allow the practice.

The bill is named the Assisted Suicide Prevention Act and is S. 3788.

ACTION: Contact your U.S. senators and ask them to support the Assisted Suicide Prevention Act. You can find complete contact information here.