Painful Debate

2 minute read
John Cloud and Sally B. Donnelly

It took years for Oregonians to settle the prickly question of whether doctors should be able to help people kill themselves. But a majority of the state’s voters made clear–twice–that they favor physician-assisted suicides, at least in the limited cases of terminally ill people expected to live less than six months.

The initiatives that approved assisted suicide had all the messy attributes of democracy, including emotional debate and dumb ads, but the state has carried out the law with care. Oregon hasn’t become a Hemlock Society convention–only 15 people committed suicide with a doctor’s help last year–and other states are mulling similar laws.

Now Congress is hurrying to ruin the people’s work. The House Judiciary Committee passed a bill last week that would essentially outlaw assisted suicides. The so-called Pain Relief Promotion Act sounds hilariously uncontroversial, but in fact it would send doctors to jail for life for prescribing controlled substances with the intent of hastening death. The bill now goes to the entire House. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden has promised a filibuster in the Senate; the President has taken no stand.

Supporters, including Roman Catholic bishops and right-to-lifers, say the bill would reduce demand for assisted suicide by making clear that doctors can treat pain aggressively without being overly scrutinized; moreover, physicians wouldn’t be prosecuted if they accidentally killed with huge doses of drugs. But foes, including patient advocates, say it would be too hard to determine if a death caused by painkillers was intentional or not. So cops will pry into all cases. “If this bill is passed,” says Dr. Nancy Crumpacker, a cancer specialist, “doctors will never again be able to treat suffering people without fear of punishment.”

–By John Cloud and Sally B. Donnelly

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com