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Posted 24 Feb 2001   For week ended April 30, 2000
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Sent on Mormon-News: 27Apr00

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 doctors.

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.


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