April 9, 1997
Dear Member of Congress:
Having been approved 45-to-2 by the House Commerce Committee, the Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act (H.R. 1003) will soon be considered on the House floor. I am writing to urge your support for this important legislation.
While no federal funds are being used for assisted suicide at present, federal programs generally lack a written policy on the issue; those few programs which address it do so only in program manuals or interpretive memoranda. Current efforts to legalize assisted suicide by referendum (Oregon) or interpretation of state constitutions (Florida) have raised questions about the use of federal funds and health facilities with a new intensity. In our view, this fundamental issue deserves and demands clear policy guidance from Congress.
This bill will prevent the use of federal funds and health programs to support and facilitate assisted suicide, even if the practice becomes legal in one or more states. It will not prevent a state from legalizing assisted suicide or supporting it with state funds. The bill also clearly states that it will have no effect on distinct issues such as abortion, withdrawal of medical treatment, or the use of drugs needed to alleviate pain even when life may be shortened as an unintended side-effect. Due to its clear and limited scope, H.R. 1003 has received strong bipartisan support and been endorsed by religious, medical and disability rights leaders who may differ on other issues.
As reported, H.R. 1003 includes a new Section 12 encouraging the Department of Health and Human Services to fund demonstration projects for improved care for persons with disabilities and terminal illness. This section also urges HHS to emphasize palliative care in its programs and to study the adequacy of current medical school curricula on pain management. Information gathered through these modest efforts will, we hope, lead to more extensive and carefully formulated improvements in care for these vulnerable populations in the future.
No one should see H.R. 1003 as a complete response to the inadequacies of our health system in its treatment of disability and terminal illness. The bill's central goal is both modest and urgently necessary: ensuring that the federal government will play no part in legitimizing and institutionalizing assisted suicide as a response to health problems. As acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger recently said in opposing the idea of a "right" to assisted suicide, "the least costly treatment for any illness is lethal medication." In a health care system too often driven by cost pressures, Congress should say loud and clear that it does not hold human life to be so cheap.
Richard M. Doerflinger
Associate Director for Policy Development