Summarized by Kent Larsen
Smith Backs Anti-Suicide Bill
Portland OR Oregonian 26Apr00 N2
By Jim Barnett and Dave Hogan: The Oregonian staff
The Oregon senator says he will vote for a measure aimed at countering the state's assisted-suicide law
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Senator Gordon Smith (R-Ore), an LDS Church member,
announced on Tuesday in testimony on an anti-suicide bill meant to
overturn an Oregon law, that he would support the measure. The law,
called the Pain Relief Promotion Act, would prohibit doctors from using
federally approved medications to assist suicide. Smith has faced a
tough decision on the bill, which pitted his constituents, who have
twice approved the assisted suicide law over heavy lobbying from the
LDS Church, the Catholic Church and others against his conscience,
bolstered by his LDS beliefs.
Smith's testimony on Tuesday displayed the emotional nature of the
issue for Smith, "I would be less than candid if I didn't tell you that
I'd prefer to be with the majority," he told reporters following the
hearing. "It is a much more comfortable place. But the majority cannot
always be your home, because the majority is not always right."
In the testimony, Smith remembered serving as an LDS bishop and as a
hospital volunteer in Pendleton, Oregon, "I was thinking of human faces
of people that I know who have lain at death's door, and, frankly,
those are very heart-rending emotions and circumstances," Smith said
after the hearing of the emotional pauses in his testimony.
The testimony also displayed the bond between Smith and fellow Oregon
Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore). Although the two opposed each other in the
strident 1995-96 campaign to replace Senator Bob Packwood, they have
developed a friendship and comraderie that superseeds their political
differences. As Smith's voice choked with emotion, Wyden, sitting next
to him, reached over and touched Smith on the arm, whispering, "It's
OK." Smith simply nodded.
For Smith the issue is somewhat familiar ground. Care for the dying has
been a recurring issue in his seven-year political career, starting
with legislation in the Oregon Senate expanding the exercise of "living
wills." He says that the issue of assisted suicide has been the most
difficult issue he has faced in the Senate, more so than the 1999
impeachment trial of President Clinton.
The issue started early in Smith's career, when a majority of Oregon
voters approved the Death With Dignity law in a 1994 referendum. A
challenge to the law in 1997 was defeated, again by a majority of
Oregon voters in a referendum.
Smith says he has felt pressure from both sides on the issue. Right-to-
life groups have targeted him, demanding his unqualified support for
the federal bill. "I'm caught in the cross-hairs between the majority
and my conscience," Smith said. "I find it very uncomfortable, but I
also find that to be responsible to the people who elected me, I should
be clear on where I am."
Wyden disagrees. While personally opposed to assisted suicide, "I
recognize that others sincerely view this issue differently, but I
firmly believe that my election certificate does not give me the
authority to substitute my personal and religious beliefs for the
judgment made twice by the people of Oregon," he said.
The bill is next scheduled for a vote of Utah Senator Orrin Hatch's
Judiciary Committee today. The bill's chief sponsor, Assistant Majority
Leader Don Nickles, (R-Okla.), expects "overwhelming" support in the
full Senate. "We'll probably have 80 votes," he claims. An early
version of the bill passed the U.S. House in October 271-156.
But Wyden says shortcomings in the bill could lead to its eventual
defeat or veto. He says the bill would make doctors fear being
investigated by federal drug agents. He also says the bill could cost
as much as $80 million a year for investigations by DEA officers of
While the bill seems to have overwhelming support, top Justice
Department officials have raised objections to it, and may be able to
influence President Clinton, in spite of his personal opposition to
assisted suicide, to veto the bill.