Hurdle For Assisted Suicide

The American Medical Association has endorsed a bill that would prohibit the use of controlled substances for doctor-assisted suicide, a spokesman for the group said.

Thursday's move by the AMA's 20-member Board of Trustees could boost efforts on Capitol Hill to curtail the landmark Oregon law, which allowed 15 patients to take their lives last year.

"We are pleased," said Brook Simmons, a spokesman for Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla. "We look forward to the AMA helping us pass this bill into law."

The AMA endorsed the measures this week during the organization's national policy-making meeting in Chicago.

Nickles, the assistant majority leader, and House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., have introduced bills for the second straight year that would discourage -- if not prevent -- Oregon patients from using the assisted-suicide law to end their lives.

Backers of the Oregon law view the legislation as an attack on the lone state in the nation that has legalized physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients with fewer than six months to live.

While the bills don't single out Oregon, they would make it difficult for the law to function, because patients prefer controlled substances such as barbiturates as a safe and effective way to end their suffering, the Oregon law's backers say.

The AMA and other medical groups opposed last year's bill, fearing the threat of an investigation would discourage doctors from prescribing pain medication.

A group spokesman, who declined to be named, said the AMA supports the Nickles bill this year because it removed the potential "criminalization" of doctors' pain treatment decisions.

The bill no longer calls for a board or committee that would report on physicians' activities and potentially wrongly accuse doctors of assisted suicide when patients die after receiving pain medication, officials of the group said earlier this week.

The AMA endorsement comes after other medical groups have decided to back the bill, including the National Hospice Organization, the American Society of Anesthesiologists and former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

Barbara Coombs Lee, who helped write the Oregon law, said the AMA Board members are "allowing their zeal for opposition to assisted dying to cloud their judgment."

She said the current Hyde-Nickles bills pose a greater threat for jailing doctors for prescribing medication than the bills the AMA opposed last year. Last year, the full House and Senate Judiciary committees passed the Hyde-Nickles bills, but the measures stalled on the floors of both bodies.

Meanwhile, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Connie Mack, R-Fla., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., have introduced a bill that would promote pain treatment but would not change Oregon's law.

At a hearing on the Hyde bill Thursday, medical professionals differed on whether the legislation would encourage or discourage better pain treatment.

Dr. David Orentlichera professor at the Indiana School of Law, argued that the bills would compromise pain care because of a fear of prosecution.

"Doctors must now worry about federal, state and local law enforcement personnel roaming the halls of hospitals and nursing homes and looking over their shoulders when they try to meet the needs of their dying patients," Orentlicher said in testimony.

Written By John Hughes