WASHINGTON (June 12, 1998) -- The General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference has urged Congressional support for the Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 1998.
Msgr. Dennis M. Schnurr said enactment of the legislation is necessary due to Attorney General Janet Reno's recent ruling which would allow the use of federally regulated drugs to assist patients' suicides.
The Catholic Bishops' spokesman said the ruling sets up a scenario in which federal prescribing licenses "are used to facilitate assisted suicide by providing access to legal drugs; where federal officials penalize doctors in Oregon, not for killing their patients but for failing to do so in the 'correct' and discriminatory way."
The Attorney General ruled (June 5) that Oregon, by rescinding its civil and criminal penalties for assisting the suicides of certain patients, has established assisted suicide as a "legitimate medical practice" within Oregon's borders and that the federal government lacks any basis for disagreeing with this judgment.
"Under this ruling, however, federal intervention by the Drug Enforcement Administration in Oregon 'may well be warranted' in cases where a physician 'fails to comply with state procedures' regarding how and when to assist suicides," said Msgr. Schnurr in a letter to all members of Congress. "Federal law will protect the lives only of those deemed by the state to be 'ineligible' for assisted suicide."
"The Oregon assisted suicide law poses an enormous threat to human dignity and to equal protection of all citizens under law," the Catholic official wrote.
"While continuing to forbid assistance in the suicide of a young and healthy person, this law rescinds criminal, civil and professional penalties for a doctor who assists the suicide of someone he or she believes 'in good faith' to have six months to live," Msgr. Schnurr said. "Ironically, once this 'good faith' judgment is made it will never be proved wrong, because the patient will be dead from a drug overdose in a few days. Oregon's discriminatory policy stigmatizes an entire class of vulnerable patients as having lives not worth protecting."
Any claim that a "states' rights" issue is involved is contradicted by the language and intent of the federal Controlled Substances Act, according to Msgr. Schnurr. "Provisions to ensure that narcotics and other dangerous drugs are used solely for a 'legitimate medical purpose,' and are never used to endanger 'public health and safety,' were included in this Act and its implementing regulations precisely to establish a uniform federal standard that would not rely on the vagaries of individual state laws," he said.
The proposed legislation would reaffirm federal obligations to protect the vulnerable from lethal drugs, Msgr. Schnurr stated. "It affirms that assisting a patient's suicide is not one of the legitimate medical purposes for which controlled substances are entrusted to physicians by the federal government. It clearly distinguishes assisted suicide from legitimate pain control practices, using language which received nearly unanimous support from Congress last year as part of the Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act. Finally, it provides for peer review by medical experts in any case where a physician believes this distinction is being misapplied to infringe upon the use of controlled substances for legitimate pain control," Msgr. Schnurr stated.