SALEM, Ore.—A state Senate panel approved a bill to give hospitals that oppose assisted suicide a firmer hand to punish doctors who flout hospital policy and engage in assisted suicides.

Backers of the measure said it tightens language in Oregon's legal assisted suicide law. The measure now moves to the full Senate.

Health groups that oppose assisted suicide, such as Providence Health Systems, a network of Catholic hospitals, have asked for more authority to penalize doctors who assist in suicides in violation of those groups' rules.

Under the bill adopted April 1 by the Senate Judiciary Committee, those hospitals can prohibit doctors from participating in assisted suicide on their property if they clearly forbid it in their contract. Further, doctors who violate that policy could be punished by losing their hospital privileges or office lease.

Backers of assisted suicide supported the changes but were upset that the Legislature was already working to restrict assisted suicides.

Opponents of the assisted suicide law tried unsuccessfully to persuade the panel to adopt language requiring that all patients undergo a mental health evaluation before they could get a lethal prescription from their doctor. The current law allows doctors to order a mental health exam if they see a need for one, but doesn't require it.

“I think that it's a minimum to protect patients who are most naturally depressed after hearing about a terminal illness,” said Gayle Atteberry, head of Oregon Right to Life, which strongly opposes assisted suicide.

On another issue, the panel decided to require patients who decide to have assisted suicides to have an Oregon driver's license.

That was aimed at easing concerns by pro-life critics that Oregon would become a “destination for death” because the current law's residency requirement is so loosely worded.

In earlier discussions, lawmakers had considered amending the law to prohibit patients from taking their lives in a public place — such as a beach or a park. The committee didn't include such language. But it did allow a state agency to charge a person's estate for any costs that might arise if the patient commits suicide on public property.

State officials have said that 15 terminally ill Oregonians used the act to end their lives in 1998, the first full year the law was in effect. (Pro-Life Infonet)