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WASHINGTON LETTER Sep-17-2004 (870 words) Backgrounder. With logos posted March 10. xxxn

Campaign '04: Courts more crucial to euthanasia debate than election

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- No matter who is occupying the White House come January, the debate over assisted suicide is unlikely to be resolved there.

Instead, the issue is expected to remain in the hands of voters at the state level and in the courts, where it has been playing out for the past several years.

In the U.S. bishops' election-year blueprint, "Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility," and in other documents, the Catholic Church's opposition to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide is clear, ranking second only to its stance on abortion.

"Abortion and euthanasia have become pre-eminent threats to human life and dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental good and a condition for all others," the bishops say in "Faithful Citizenship."

In choosing between the Republican incumbent, President George W. Bush, and his Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, however, voters will find little guidance on the topic of euthanasia and assisted suicide on the two candidates' campaign Web sites.

On the site for Bush's campaign, the word "euthanasia" never appears, and the 84 references to suicide all refer either to suicide attacks by terrorists or to efforts to lower the suicide rate among teens.

Similarly, the Kerry campaign Web site has no mention of euthanasia and only seven references to suicide -- all related either to suicide bombers or to the role of anti-depressants in adolescent suicides.

But, says Rita L. Marker, executive director of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, "much hinges on the election as it relates to assisted suicide."

In 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft ruled that the use of federally regulated drugs in assisted suicides in Oregon -- the only state where physician-assisted suicide is legal -- was not a "legitimate medical purpose" and violated the Controlled Substances Act. Doctors who participated in those suicides could face fines or jail time or lose their right to prescribe federally controlled drugs.

The state of Oregon appealed the ruling and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in the state's favor in August.

Marker told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from her office in Steubenville, Ohio, that the Bush administration has until mid-November to decide whether to appeal the circuit court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But if Kerry is elected president Nov. 2, that appeal "will be dropped like a hot potato," Marker said, in light of the views expressed by the Democrat in a May interview with the Statesman Journal newspaper in Salem, Ore.

Kerry said that although he believes assisted suicide is "the wrong concept or approach personally" he does not think the federal government should interfere in states' decisions in the matter.

"It's a very complicated, thorny, moral, ethical issue that people wrestle with," he added. "And I don't think it is the government's job to step in.

"I think the states have the right to wrestle with those kinds of issues, just as states wrestle with marriage laws," Kerry said. "I think states have a right to make those decisions. I have my own personal beliefs about life and about what you do."

Marker said it is ironic that Kerry is more supportive of state law allowing assisted suicide than even Ralph Nader, the independent presidential candidate, who is considered more liberal on most issues. In 2000 Nader said he opposed Oregon's assisted suicide law.

There is little legislative history to be found to compare candidates Bush and Kerry on euthanasia and assisted suicide.

In 1997, Kerry voted with all but one of his colleagues to approve the Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act, which forbade the use of federal funds or federal facilities to provide "assisted suicide, euthanasia or mercy killing."

But because of a filibuster in 2000 by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Kerry and his fellow senators did not get a chance to vote on the Pain Relief Promotion Act, which would have banned the use of federally controlled substances for assisted suicide and promoted better pain relief. The legislation had passed the House, 271-156.

Although Bush never served in Congress, as governor of Texas in 1999 he signed a bill aimed at preventing patients from being denied lifesaving medical treatment, food and water against their will by hospital ethics committees. Two years earlier he vetoed a measure that would have given civil and criminal immunity to physicians who acted against patients' wishes on such matters.

Depending on which polls are consulted and how the questions are phrased, support for the legalization of assisted suicide seems to be growing in the United States. But when it comes to their own states, most Americans don't want euthanasia in their own back yard.

Oregon voters twice have approved physician-assisted suicide, but voters or legislators in Michigan, Maine, Wyoming and Hawaii have rejected it.

On the federal level, Marker said, the anti-euthanasia effort "is totally focused on whether the federal government will proceed with defending its own regulations."

But if that effort is abandoned, she added, state legislatures that have been "reluctant to go forward" with assisted-suicide proposals until the federal court case was settled might find new impetus.


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