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Dr. Nickles and Mr. Hyde Feel Your Pain

[Editor’s note: This article appeared originally in the Denver Post.]

Our valued American principle, “freedom of religion,” can have no meaning unless it includes freedom from other people’s religions.

Few would disagree with this. Most of us treasure our individuality and our freedom to decide just what to believe. This, after all, is the American way. It started with our founding fathers who saw the trouble European nations experienced from church interference with the state, and opted for a strictly secular government in this country. By maintaining strict neutrality toward religion, this new government could assure freedom of religion to all. Americans would be free to believe or not believe, as they chose.

Unfortunately, some of our current legislators violate this principle and use their governmental powers to impose their personal beliefs on others.

The “Pain Relief Promotion Act of 1999 (PRPA)” is a case in point. This bill, sponsored by Senator Don Nickles and Representative Henry Hyde, both Catholics, would amend the Controlled Substances Act to make it illegal to use scheduled drugs to assist in hastening a death. Anyone “intentionally dispensing, distributing, or administering a controlled substance for the purpose of causing death or assisting another person in causing death” would be subject to federal prosecution and a prison term from 20 years to life.

This bill is a direct response to the Death with Dignity Act first passed in Oregon in 1994 that allowed doctors, after suitable safeguards, to aid a patient in achieving a painless death. Immediately the Oregon Catholic Conference attempted to have it repealed. When that failed, they succeeded in bringing it up for a second vote, based largely on a fictitious Dutch study reported in The Oregonian. The doctor referenced in the article refuted the statistics printed, but the issue was still presented to the people for another vote. This they did on November 4, 1997, when the people of Oregon overwhelmingly expressed their support for physician-assisted suicide in a resounding 60-40 victory.

Now we have two members of our U.S. Congress attempting to use legislation to override the twice-expressed will of Oregon voters to legalize assisted dying in that state. Additionally, this bill would make it impossible for any state in our nation to have effective laws permitting physician-assisted suicide–a wholly undemocratic action on the part of Congress!

Passage of this legislation would affect even those who do not choose the option of doctor-assisted suicide, or even those in states with no such law, as it would have a chilling effect on physicians’ willingness to prescribe adequate medication for end of life care, meaning intensified agony for thousands of dying patients. What doctor wouldn’t hesitate before prescribing full pain relief, knowing that under this bill, any police officer at the local, state, or federal level could question his intent and define his action as a crime? The fear of investigation, even under current regulations, has lead to the well-documented “undertreatment” of pain, according to the CEO of the Oregon Hospice Association.

Religious opposition to medical relief of suffering is not new. In 1591, Eufame Macalyane, a lady of rank, charged with seeking aid for the relief of pain at the time of the birth of her two sons, was burned alive on the Castle Hill of Edinburgh. Using chloroform was considered contrary to the will of God as it avoided one part of the “primeval curse on woman.” The use of inoculations was opposed, as well, with sermons preaching that diseases are sent by Providence for the punishment of sin and it is wrong of man to seek escape from such divine retribution.

This same thinking prevails in the modern-day opposition to doctor-assisted suicide, with Catholics believing that end of life suffering purifies the soul and must therefore be endured. To those of us who do not share that religious belief, denial of a merciful end to the agony of terminal illness is outright cruelty. We do more for our pets when we humanely alleviate their suffering.

Furthermore, experience in Oregon shows that the very knowledge that relief is available if needed provides a comfort and makes pain more bearable. Not every patient who had applied under the Death with Dignity Act followed through. Those who did, however, were able to have family and friends present with them at the end.

Americans need to defend their constitutional right to “freedom of religion.” We must refuse to permit our elected officials to use the power of government to legislate religious doctrine.