WASHINGTON (May 6, 2005) — In a friend-of-the court brief filed today in the United States Supreme Court, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and other religious organizations declared that the U.S. Attorney General was correct in finding that assisted suicide is not a legitimate medical practice under the Controlled Substances Act. The amici asked the Supreme Court to reverse a Ninth Circuit decision striking down the Attorney General's interpretation of the Act.
The high court is expected to render a decision on the case, Gonzales v. State of Oregon, next term.
"The Attorney General's conclusion that there is a difference between assisting suicide and managing pain, and that the former is not a legitimate medical purpose within the meaning of the Controlled Substances Act…while the latter is, is not only eminently reasonable but also supported by longstanding medical practice and past interpretation of the Act," the brief said.
"Enforcing the distinction leads to improvements in patient care. Blurring the distinction has been harmful to patients and jeopardized their care. Government does not serve the public interest or the common good by facilitating the killing of innocent people, regardless of their medical condition."
The brief noted that medicine by its very definition aims to prevent illness, to heal, and to alleviate pain. "Taking a human life accomplishes none of these objectives.
To say that it does creates an inherent contradiction, like saying that the legitimate practice of law includes helping clients break the law."
"What virtually every state regards as a crime, indeed as a form of homicide, does not become 'medicine' simply because the perpetrator is a doctor, the patient is terminally ill, or one state has decided to rescind its own criminal penalties for the act."
The first part of the brief explains the fundamental difference between treating pain and assisting suicide, addressing the misconception that assisting suicide is simply a means of treating pain. It notes that this distinction, and the understanding of assisted suicide as being outside the scope of legitimate medical practice, is consistent with longstanding tenets of the medical profession and past interpretation and enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.
The second part of the brief explains how recognizing the distinction between treating pain and assisting suicide, and prohibiting the latter, has led to significant improvements in palliative care and in the ability of physicians to care for dying patients, while ignoring the distinction has had a deleterious impact on pain management and palliative care.
In addition to the USCCB, other organizations signing the brief are: the California Catholic Conference, Oregon Catholic Conference, Washington State Catholic Conference, Catholic Health Association of the United States, and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
The brief was submitted by Mark E. Chopko, General Counsel of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Michael F. Moses, USCCB Associate General Counsel.