Will Washington Kill Doctor-Assisted Suicide?

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Jack Kevorkian must be rolling over in his jail cell. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would outlaw the use of federally controlled drugs in physician-assisted suicide. The bill, sponsored by Henry Hyde, is a pointed rebuke to Oregon voters, who passed the Death With Dignity Act in 1997, permitting doctors to prescribe (but not administer) lethal levels of painkillers to terminally ill, mentally competent patients who are within six months of dying. Under a law modeled on Hyde's bill, doctors convicted of aiding in a suicide could spend at least 20 years in jail.

"If the Senate approves a similar bill," says TIME Washington correspondent Sally Donnelly, "and Clinton signs it into law, doctors would be permitted to treat pain as aggressively as they saw fit, given their intent was not to end the patients' life. This way, doctors could medicate for pain without fear of retribution, even if a patient dies. But the tough issue becomes intent: What did the doctor intend the drugs to do?" So if a patient does die while medicated, a doctor would be subject to an investigation, which, the bill's opponents fear, could lead the Drug Enforcement Agency right into patients' hospital rooms, and send scores of doctors into protracted legal proceedings. This could be a lenghty battle: President Clinton has voiced his disappointment over the House vote, indicating his readiness to sign a veto, and at this point each side of the debate claims to have the votes to render the other side moot. Across the country in Oregon, battle lines are already drawn; state legislators are threatening to challenge the constitutionality of any federal law overturning the state's assisted suicide provision, citing the states' traditional powers to regulate and oversee physicians, and arguing that the issue is not about drugs — a federal purview — but about doctors' decisions and actions.