National Catholic Register


Assisted Suicide Gets Boost From Attorney General

Pro-lifers step up outcry against 'right' they say will become a 'duty'

BY Hazel Whitman

June 21-27, 1998 Issue | Posted 6/21/98 at 1:00 PM


PORTLAND, Ore.—Fallout continues here and across the country after Attorney General Janet Reno's suicide prescription decision early this month. Reno's stance lends some support to Oregon's 1994 Death With Dignity Act, saying doctors won't be prosecuted for helping their patients die.

Both legislators and Catholic leaders maintain that doctors do not belong in the assisted suicide business.

“In my judgment, the Justice Department is abdicating its responsibility to protect vulnerable people from deadly harm,” said Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland. “Our nation, from its very beginnings, has been committed to a form of government which provides liberty and justice for all. There is no true liberty without justice.”

Creating a law blocking lethal prescriptions and focusing on pain relief in patients' final hours would be more beneficial, Archbishop Vlazny said. He added that doctors should “not exacerbate any sense of abandonment” patients may feel.

Pope John Paul — referring to societies that permit abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, nuclear war, and capital punishment — has coined the phrase the “Culture of Death,” to describe some of the modern world. Ideologies that support such a culture mixed with Oregon's own cult of individualism to create the first place in the country where assisted suicide is legal. It is one of the nation's least-churched states, and few were surprised that it became the launching point for suicide supporters.

Church leaders maintain that the poor, elderly, and disabled might fall prey to laws that start as a right to die, and then mutate into a duty to die.

“Our government, which we contract to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable, has instead advanced the culture of death by facilitating the suicide of those most in need of our compassion,” said James Cardinal Hickey, archbishop of Washington. “We call on Congress to act promptly to reinstate the Drug Enforcment Administration (DEA) position overturned by Reno, so as to prevent more tragic deaths in Oregon.”

In Oregon, the assisted suicide law is already taking its toll. The law was first approved in 1994, but it was shelved because of legal challenges. It went into effect last November following the sound defeat of an appeal initiative. This first-in-the-nation law permits doctors to use medication, but not lethal injections, to aid patients in committing suicide. It requires the concurrence of two doctors that a person has less than six months to live and is mentally competent to make a decision to end his or her life.

At least three doctor-assisted deaths have been attributed to the Oregon law since it went into effect. The details surrounding one of the first cases provides reason for concern. Before this assisted suicide, two doctors, including the family physician, declined to help in the death of an 82-year-old woman. At least one of the doctors diagnosed her with depression and recommended treatment and counseling. A third doctor, referred by suicide activists, agreed to help in her death after interviewing her by telephone.

Dr. Joseph Graham, president of Texas Right to Life Committee, Inc., said some may wrongly interpret the attorney general's decision as a concession in favor of legalizing assisted suicide in other states.

“This is not a ‘victory for democracy’ as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said, but a victory for those who seek to further the culture of death by making it easier for doctors to kill their patients,” Graham said.

On June 5, Reno said that doctors prescribing deadly drugs under Oregon's assisted-suicide law will not face federal prosecution. Almost immediately after her announcement Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) introduced the Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act. Hyde said lethal abuse of drugs hasn't ever received federal government backing, nor backing from the American people.

This month's events in the tale of the attempts to legalize assisted suicide began with a request from Reno seven months ago. She asked DEA chief Thomas Constantine to comment on the Oregon law. Constantine said prescribing lethal doses did not meet the Controlled Substances Act's requirement of “legitimate medical purpose.”

In contrast to that finding, Reno, who is in charge of the DEA, now states that medical practice has traditionally been regulated by the states. At the end of her ruling, she wrote that her opinions were for this case only and don't amount to an overall green light for doctor-assisted suicide.

“The refusal of Attorney General Janet Reno to enforce the Controlled Substances Act that prevents the use of federally controlled dangerous drugs to kill patients flies in the face of the professional judgment of the Drug Enforcement Agency, the views of 65% of the American people, and the urging of 37 senators and 169 representatives,” said Burke Balch, director of the National Right to Life Committee's department of medical ethics.

Father Michael Place, president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association (CHA) of the United States, said Reno's ruling is regrettable. Father Place said Congress and the president should now concentrate on the legal and policy ramifications of her ruling. He said CHA will work for education and funding for palliative care and additional programs for those with chronic pain and the terminally ill.

From the standpoint of supporters of legal suicide this new decision bears the mark of federal support. Barbara Coombs Lee, chief petitioner for the Oregon Death with Dignity Act and director of Compassion in Dying, said legal challenges to the law are “exhausted.”

“This ruling clearly supports our society's beliefs that decisions about health care should be made based on local community standards and enforced by local authorities, not the DEA or the federal government,” said Coombs Lee.

It's unknown how Reno's position will impact Jack Kevorkian and the Hemlock Society. Kevorkian, the self-described “death doctor,” has advocated for non-profit suicide clinics. His motto is: “Arational policy of planned death.”

The Hemlock Society, headquartered in Eugene, Ore., says it supports the work of suicide prevention programs and it denounces suicide for emotional, traumatic, or financial reasons. Its mission statement says, “We encourage, through a program of education and research, public acceptance of voluntary physician aid-in-dying for the terminally ill.”

No end appears in sight for the assisted-suicide debate, although it's not yet clear if Reno's ruling will affect initiatives in other states to prosecute or prevent assisted suicides. Opponents of assisted suicide have called Oregon a “firewall” and predicted that legalization will be sought in other individual states. There has already been some support for such a course in Washington, California, Florida, New Hampshire, and Arizona. Earlier attempts at legalization have failed in Washington and California.

James Bopp Jr, an Indiana attorney for the National Right to Life Committee, has been involved with federal court appeals involving assisted suicide since 1994. Bopp said the goal is to find people who face a realistic chance of being harmed by the suicide law. He said injured parties might include families of terminally ill people or health workers forced to obey the law despite its conflict with their religious beliefs.

Richard Doerflinger, associate policy development director for the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, joins those calling for legislative response. Doerflinger said the Justice Department “abdicated its responsibility to protect vulnerable people from deadly harm. Congress should address this issue quickly, making it clear that federally regulated drugs may not be used to assist suicides.”

He said this path would be “morally and legally responsible.”

Meanwhile, assisted-suicide foes continue their fight. Next month a federal district judge will hear an appeal brought by attorneys who are trying to overturn Oregon's assisted-suicide law. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals already rejected the bid, but attorneys are now adding a new plaintiff and complaint to the case. This suit alleges that legalizing assisted suicide stigmatizes terminally ill people and regards lives as not worth safeguarding.

Also, an Oregon legislative committee may mandate that more details of assisted suicides become public to prevent possible abuses.

In another assisted suicide matter, a Baton Rouge man has become the first person charged with violating Louisiana's 3-year-old law against assisted suicide. Police have arrested Joseph Hornsby, 26, for allegedly assisting the suicide of his girlfriend during an argument May 22.

Investigators say Hornsby had been arguing with Kristina Duong, 25, when she threatened to kill herself. After taking a gun away from her, Hornsby allegedly handed it back to her and told her to go ahead. She then reportedly pointed the gun at her head and pulled the trigger. He could face 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Hazel Whitman writes from Portland, Oregon.