Testimony of Senator Gordon Smith

April 25, 2000
Testimony of Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR)
Senate Judiciary Committee
April 25, 2000


Mr. Chairman and members of the committee:


I thank you for granting my request and that of Senator Wyden to hold this hearing. There are good people on both sides of the ever controversial and emotional issue of assisted suicide. But I think, given the importance of the issue, we can all be united in a belief that it deserves a full and fair hearing every step of the way. And I thank the Chairman for making this hearing happen.


The debate over physician-assisted suicide is a relatively new one in the halls of Congress and throughout most of the country. But this is not the case in my state of Oregon. Indeed, Oregon’s debate began in earnest at about the same time I began my public service as an Oregon State Senator in l993. 1n 1994, 51 % of Oregon voters approved an initiative allowing physician-assisted suicide. And in 1997, 60% of Oregon voters chose not to repeal that decision.


The first initiative made the matter a central concern to voters during my two campaigns for election to the United States Senate in 1996, and the second has made it a central concern to Oregonians throughout my years of service in this body. It is no exaggeration to say that my views on the subject were sought at every campaign stop prior to my election, and have been sought at every town hail since my election.


And on hundreds upon hundreds of occasions, my answer was always and is always without variance: I am opposed to assisted suicide.


Today, I come before this committee to repeat that answer once again.


“At peace with my conscience”


Mr. Chairman, I am acutely aware that this position places me at odds with a majority of my constituents, and I tell you that it is a lot more comfortable to be with the majority in the business of democracy. For that reason, I admit to having wrestled for a different conclusion on this issue in order that I might once again take comfort in the crowd. But on a matter of this magnitude–a matter of life and death–I have failed to find comfort with a troubled conscience. But more, I am loathe to let down the hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who, though a minority, heard my answers, and now count on the integrity of my word.


And so, Mr. Chairman, recognizing that this places me in conflict with a majority of my constituents, but at peace with my conscience, I am here today to urge passage of the Pain Relief Promotion Act.


I am also here today to say that while on this issue I cannot give Oregon’s majority my vote, I owe them my explanation. Prior to my service in elected office, I served in a volunteer basis as a Bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in my hometown. In this capacity, I found my professional work as a food processor in a constant, but blessed, state of interruption.


On a weekly basis and at the oddest of hours, I found myself making continual rounds at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Pendleton, Oregon. On many occasions I shared with parents the unspeakable joy of welcoming newborn babies into this world. On others, I suffered in heartbreaking sorrow as I tried to comfort the critically ill, or hold the hands of those who lay at the brink of eternity.


Reverence for the Sanctity of Life


In my life, I have never dealt with an issue that fills me with more joy, more sorrow, and more reverence than does the sanctity of life.


Through my experiences at that hospital, I came to believe, as never before, that men and women are not just advanced animals, but are children of divine origin and are here on earth to have all of life’s experiences-good and bad, pleasure and pain, health and sickness.


I further believe that there is a natural course to living and dying, and that with some exceptions, we should not shorten or lengthen life by artificial or invasive means. That is a belief instilled in me during many hours I spent at the beside of a dying woman. She had effectively died hours before, but because of invasive high technology that provided artificial respiration, nutrition, and hydration, and because of physician fear over liability, her death-not her life- was prolonged for many hours.


It is precisely because of these beliefs and my experiences that I did the unexpected when I became an Oregon State Senator.


Authoring advanced directive law


To the chagrin of a few in the pro-life community, I co- authored one of the most liberal advanced directive laws in the United States. Because of the role I played, Oregonians now have the right to refuse artificial respiration, nutrition, and hydration in terminal circumstances. Moreover, physicians can honor these requests secure in the protection of law.


I viewed then, and still view the withholding of extraordinary medical measures as an act of commission–an appropriate acquiescence to the timetable of nature’s God. But I stated then–and believe still–that physician assisted suicide is an act of commission, a step over the line, in which a state should never have complicity.


It is the line of commission rather than omission that I cannot cross.


I believe the United States should never cross that line, either, by allowing federally controlled substances to be used in physician assisted suicide. To do so would be bad policy and it would have consequences over time unimaginable now-consequences outlined by Derek Humphrey, an Oregonian and one of the most vocal and visible advocates of assisted suicide, in his 1998 book, Freedom to Die.


The awful “unspoken argument”


The final chapter of Mr. Humphrey’s book is entitled “The Unspoken Argument.” Why is it unspoken? Because it is so awful. Let me quote from page 313 of Mr. Humphrey’s book, where he reveals the true reason why he believes assisted suicide’s time has come: …

“One must look at the realities of the increasing cost of health care in an aging society, because in the final analysis, economics, not the quest for broadened individual liberties or increased autonomy, will drive assisted suicide to the plateau of acceptable practice.”

Then he asks this chilling question:

“Is there, in fact, a duty to die-a responsibility within the family unit-that should remain voluntary but expected nevertheless?”


Mr. Humphrey answers yes, but I believe we must answer his vision of Orwellian ugliness with a resounding no. I will not be party to building such a society or justifying such a culture of death. In such a culture, we should never wonder why children do not value life when adults write laws that do not value it either.


The right to kill oneself is a private one. It is a right that can be exercised in nearly anyone’s medicine cabinet.


Making doctors complicit in killing


But it is dangerous to make doctors and the state complicit in killing, even though consensual. In an age of medical rationing and for-profit HMO’s, there is a terrible ethical and financial conflict of interest. And the federal government should see it and stay away from it.


Where Mr. Humphrey sees a duty to die, I see a duty to resolve the shortcomings of our medical budgets rationally and honestly without sacrificing the most vulnerable in our society- the elderly and the disabled.


Now, finally, Mr. Chairman, let me turn to the issue of state’s rights. At the heart of Oregon’s twice passed physician-assisted suicide law is the assumption that Oregon can change, expand, and interpret a 30-year-old federal statute in ways never authorized or contemplated by the national government. Not since Lee’s Army surrendered to Grant’s at Appomattox Courthouse has a state enjoyed such a right.


The Controlled Substances Act was passed expressly to control deadly drugs in interstate commerce to ensure “public health and safety.” It was the toxic and lethal nature of these drugs that caused Congress to act, to limit and regulate their use to “legitimate medical purposes.”


Where Oregon’s legislative authority ends


For a state–even my beloved home state of Oregon–to unilaterally act to use federal drugs for lethal purposes is an open invitation to the nation to reclaim and reassert its law. Oregon has no more right to write federal law than the federal government has to write Oregon law.


Mr. Chairman, I do not know if I will ever have to cast my vote on the Pain Relief Promotion Act, but if I do, Oregonians should know that I will vote “aye.”


I would not do so had the bill’s sponsors not honored my request to include two important provisions which had not been included in earlier drafts: First, a provision to protect those doctors who may already have aided in the death of a patient, acting in good faith and within their understanding of Oregon’s law. And second, a provision that provides physicians with the protection of law so that they may aggressively relieve pain.


“Conscientious judgment”


With the inclusion of these provisions, I believe the Pain Relief Promotion Act will free up physicians to relieve pain and suffering as never before, with the right to use federally controlled substances in massive amounts, even if death is thereby hastened.


Mr. Chairman, this weekend I will return to Oregon, and begin again the process of discussing this issue and my position with those citizens who have granted me the high privilege of serving my native state in the United State Senate. I deeply respect the fact that I do answer to them. I will share with them words that have given me courage throughout my years in public service, but most especially this past weekend in drafting this statement.


The words are these: “Democracy means much more than popular government and majority rule,” wrote John F. Kennedy. “The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people–faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment–faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor, and ultimately recognize right.

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