Subject: Wesley Smith: Saying
No to Assisted Suicide
Source: Weekly Standard; November 19, 2001
Wesley Smith: Saying No to Assisted
[Pro-Life Infonet Note: Wesley J.
Smith, an attorney for the
International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, is the
of "Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America."]
When Orego voters legalized assisted
suicide in 1994, state regulators had
a problem. They wanted to authorize doctors to prescribe barbiturates
killing agents. But the federal government regulates the use of these
drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, and federal law did not permit
their use to intentionally kill.
Ordinarily, that would have been that.
The feds, not the states, have the
final say about what would and would not be a proper use of drugs governed
by the Controlled Substances Act. Unfortunately, Oregon's assisted suicide
law went into effect during the Clinton years, when principle and the
of law were rarely allowed to impede political expedience. Thus, it
hardly surprising when former Attorney General Janet Reno declared that
she would not enforce federal law against Oregon's doctors who assisted
patient suicides, thereby permitting a state to nullify the federal
proscription against using controlled substances to kill.
Proponents of assisted suicide were
thrilled. Their Oregon beachhead
secure, they expected to spread their dark agenda nationwide. Instead,
they have been turned back by a potent alliance of liberal disability
rights activists, conservative pro-lifers, members of the hospice
movement, medical professionals, and advocates for the poor and
minorities. Only seven years after the Oregon law passed, the landscape
has dramatically changed: Jack Kevorkian is in prison for murder;
initiatives attempting to legalize assisted suicide failed in Michigan
1998 by 71-29 percent and in Maine last year by 51-49 percent; and the
U.S. Supreme Court, followed by Florida and Alaska high courts, all
that there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide.
And now, assisted suicide in Oregon
has taken a body blow. Last Wednesday,
Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memorandum to Asa Hutchinson,
new head of the DEA, reversing Reno's decision. Oregon regulations will
longer override the Controlled Substances Act. "Assisting suicide
is not a
'legitimate medical purpose'" under the meaning of that act, Ashcroft
stated, and doctors who assist suicides act "inconsistently with
public interest." Accordingly, even though assisted suicide remains
in Oregon, the DEA will now be authorized to revoke the federal
prescribing license of any doctor who uses controlled substances lethally
rather than medically.
Predictably, Oregon has sued, its politicians
bellowing that their
"state's rights" have been violated. But this is nonsense.
his decision on the recent 8-0 Supreme Court decision in United States
Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, which ruled that while California
was free to legalize medical marijuana all it wanted, the state's decision
did not prevent the federal government from enforcing federal law
proscribing the use of marijuana for any purpose.
Not surprisingly, a federal judge has
implementation of Ashcroft's decision, questioning why the attorney
general waited months before changing Justice Department policy. But
hard to see how any court can prevent Ashcroft from enforcing federal
unless it openly flouts the Supreme Court ruling in Cannabis Buyer's
Of course, this is the Ninth Circuit,
the most reversed court in the
country, so the road is likely to be bumpy. But the Supreme Court sits
the end of that road, and thus, it is probably only a matter of time
before the Controlled Substances Act is enforced uniformly in all 50
Oregon euthanasia activists warn that
Ashcroft's memo will create a
"chilling effect" for doctors who wish to aggressively treat
this is baseless fear-mongering. Ashcroft has already written to the
president of the Oregon Medical Association assuring him that Oregon
doctors "have no reason to fear" that prescribing "controlled
to control pain will lead to increased scrutiny by the DEA, even when
doses of painkilling drugs are necessary." Moreover, states that
outlawed assisted suicide, while at the same time making it clear that
aggressive treatment of pain is a proper medical act, have seen tremendous
per capita increases in the prescription of morphine to treat pain.
example, in 1996 Rhode Island outlawed assisted suicide. Since then,
capita morphine use has increased 164 percent. Michigan's similar ban
resulted in increased morphine use of 20 percent since 1998. Similarly,
Louisiana banned assisted suicide in 1995 and has seen a 26 percent
increase in per capita morphine use.
Any lingering worries about chilling
effects could be easily thawed by
passing the Pain Relief Promotion Act, legislation that would explicitly
make aggressive pain control a legitimate medical purpose under the
Controlled Substances Act. Unfortunately, passage of this important
was thwarted last year by Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who
the pain relief legislation would do what Ashcroft has just done--reassert
a federal penalty for doctors who use controlled substances to engage
assisted suicide. Wyden saw to it that the legislative clock ran out
the pain relief act.
Now that Ashcroft has properly restored
federal standards in the use of
controlled substances, there is no further excuse to thwart passage
Pain Relief Promotion Act. If Wyden and the other backers of Oregon's
assisted suicide regime really care about suffering patients, this time
they won't stand in the way.