The U.S. Senate is preparing to join the U.S. House in overriding Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, authorized twice by statewide votes of the people of Oregon. In the process, Congress seems willing to condemn thousands of terminally ill Americans to suffer increased pain during their final days.
The vote was much closer in the Senate Judiciary Committee than the bill's backers, who expected near unanimity, anticipated. On April 27th, the highly partisan committee sent the so-called Pain Relief Promotion Act (PRPA) to the full Senate.
The 10-8 vote, and its preceding hearing, does offer hope. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) pledged to support Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D) during Wyden's promised filibuster on the Senate floor.
Wyden has promised to do everything in his power to stop this dangerous legislation from becoming law.
The narrow vote also shows that the bill's chief proponent, Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) does not have the broad support he claims. Medical groups taking a stand overwhelmingly oppose this legislation, including the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Geriatrics Society, the American Nurses Association, the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine and the American Society of Pain Management Nurses.
Several state medical societies and more than 40 medical, healthcare and patient groups, as well as countless healthcare practitioners and ethicists, have come out in opposition.
All of these groups agree that PRPA is dangerous legislation that will turn back recent improvements in pain and palliative care. They all believe that PRPA will cause harm to patients in pain by threatening physicians and other healthcare professionals who provide pain relief.
PRPA would enable DEA agents and criminal prosecutors to question the intent of any physician or healthcare professional who provides pain medication or another controlled substance to a patient who dies shortly thereafter. A physician could lose the right to practice medicine and be sent to prison for 20 years to life if the intent was deemed to "cause death."
This threat of regulatory intervention and oversight -- and the fear of having their intentions misconstrued -- would surely dissuade physicians from aggressively treating pain for the terminally ill. Instead doctors would retreat to the safety of under-treating pain, as study after study has shown. Consequently, this bill would set back recent gains in pain and palliative care nationwide.
Ironically, PRPA's most ardent supporters have been trying to pass this legislation off as a health care bill. When they begin to argue about its dubious merits, however, they quickly move into religion and morality. PRPA's true purpose is not to promote care, but solely to nullify Oregon's Death With Dignity Act.
Sadly, in their zeal to impose their particular religion and morality on Oregonians, PRPA proponents are willing to doom thousands of Americans to unnecessary suffering at the end of life. Many people are making their voices heard to help stop this threat.
Many senators remain unsure of how they will vote. Some have taken a position against PRPA after hearing from constituents and medical professionals in their state.