WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation yesterday that would in effect overturn an Oregon law permitting physician-assisted suicides while giving doctors more leeway to prescribe narcotics to reduce suffering in seriously ill patients.
The bill, which passed 271-156, sets national standards for easing pain in the seriously ill and effectively prevents states from adopting their own versions of the 5-year-old Oregon law, which enables terminally ill patients in pain to end their lives with the aid of a doctor.
Supporters of the legislation fended off amendments to preserve Oregon's law and exempt doctors from criminal sanctions. The measure has the support of key Senate Republicans, but a rush to congressional adjournment early next month could delay action on it there until next year.
The bill did not specifically mention the Oregon law, but it explicitly instructs Attorney General Janet Reno and future attorneys general to "give no force and effect to state law authorizing or permitting assisted suicide or euthanasia."
Last year, Reno ruled that because of Oregon's new law, the state was exempt from the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and Drug Enforcement Agency jurisdiction.
The bill's backers said it would remove the fears that many health care providers have about using narcotics to ease pain, lest the patients die and law enforcement officials launch investigations into the cause of death.
"This bill would encourage pain management even if the use of [narcotics] to do so unintentionally hastened death," said Rep. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who is a physician.
Opponents argued that the legislation "opens a new role for the Drug Enforcement Administration to investigate the intent of physicians who employ aggressive means to alleviate pain in dying patients," as Rep. Nancy Johnson, a Connecticut Republican, put it.
Others, including Rep. Steven Rothman, a New Jersey Democrat, said the bill tramples on the doctor-patient relationship and encourages the DEA to harass doctors who aggressively treat excruciating pain with narcotics.
Among Maryland's lawmakers, Republicans Roscoe G. Bartlett joined Democrats Steny H. Hoyer and Albert R. Wynn in supporting the bill. Opposed were Republicans Robert Ehrlich, Wayne T. Gilchrest and Constance A. Morella, and Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin and Elijah E. Cummings.
The bill would provide $5 million in grants to medical schools and hospices to develop training programs for doctors on easing pain for the dying. That provision helped secure the endorsement of the American Medical Association.
The Justice Department supported the thrust of the bill, pointing out that the Clinton administration "opposes assisted suicide."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican who is chief sponsor of the bill, said it would "provide a safe harbor for doctors" against charges that their aggressive use of painkilling narcotics deliberately caused a terminally ill patient's death.