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Oregon Lawmakers Seek to Save State’s Death with Dignity Act

Oregon Lawmakers Seek to Save State’s Death with Dignity Act

Gannett News Service (June 14, 2001)

MIKE MADDEN WASHINGTON — Oregon members of Congress launched a pre-emptive strike Wednesday against efforts to undo the state’s unique assisted suicide law, introducing legislation to encourage aggressive treatment of pain without interfering with the Oregon Death With Dignity Act.

The law, which voters have approved twice, survived a challenge in Congress last year when Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., stymied efforts to overturn it. Though opponents of assisted suicide expect the Bush administration to try to undo the law by reinterpreting federal drug statutes, officials have taken no action yet.

The pain management bill, sponsored by Wyden, Republican Sen. Gordon Smith and Democratic Rep. Darlene Hooley, does not directly address assisted suicide . But Wyden said he hoped promoting better pain management would decrease the number of people feeling the need to take their own lives — which could help end the debate over the law.

“My hope always was that both sides in the assisted suicide debate should rally to the cause of beefing up and improving pain management, because that can reduce the demand for assisted suicide , and that should be appealing to both sides,” Wyden said.

The bill provides for a broad range of efforts to support treatment of pain, from federal research to community programs designed to spread the word that patients do not need to suffer needlessly.

“For better and for worse, our health care system tends to focus more on curing diseases than on pain management,” Smith said. “So when there is no cure for an illness and effective pain management is lacking, there is often no way to adequately help a patient at all.”

Hooley said she hoped the bill would help improve quality of life for patients suffering from extreme pain by removing the threat that aggressive pain treatments might come under intense scrutiny.

Smith and Wyden had put pain management legislation on their annual list of projects they would tackle together, after having split on the assisted suicide question last year.

Though both senators say they oppose letting doctors help patients commit suicide, Wyden worked hard to block a Republican bill supported by Smith that would have undermined Oregon’s law. That bill, sponsored by deputy GOP leader Don Nickles of Oklahoma, never came to a vote.

Many advocates for terminally ill patients argued the Nickles bill would have discouraged doctors from treating pain aggressively, because even accidentally fatal overdoses could have sparked investigations by federal law enforcement agents.

With Smith facing a possible re-election challenge next fall from popular Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, and with Democrats now in charge of the Senate, observers say they don’t expect Republicans to try to attack Oregon’s law in Congress again.