By Dan Kulin and Mary L. Schumacher
WASHINGTON – Although opinions among Maryland congressmen vary on the issue of doctor-assisted suicide, all eight voted Thursday to prohibit federal funding of the practice.
An overwhelming majority in the House – 398 to 16 – voted to approve a measure that would prohibit programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, from paying for physician-assisted suicides.
The bill is designed as a “preemptive strike,” said Frederick Republican Roscoe Bartlett, one of more than 100 co- sponsors.
The Supreme Court is reviewing the constitutionality of assisted suicide, based on suits filed to challenge New York and Washington state bans of the practice.
There is no federal law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide. There also is no law against physician-assisted suicide in Maryland, although those who practice it could be prosecuted under common law, according to the state attorney general’s office.
A bill similar to the House measure has been introduced in the Senate, and is pending in the Finance Committee.
President Clinton would be expected to sign such a measure, a White House spokeswoman said.
Some in the House who supported the federal funding ban said it was unnecessary or did not do enough. “We should be providing more funds for medical schools to teach pain management and end- of-life care,” said Democratic Rep. Albert Wynn, of Largo.
He said he supported the bill as a “symbolic vote.”
Bartlett, who said a decision on assisted suicide should be “between a doctor, a family and a minister,” did not think Congress should regulate the practice. But, he said, Americans should not have to pay for something they don’t yet understand.
“The American people have no idea what they think of assisted suicide yet,” he said. “So they shouldn’t have to fund it.”
Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, of Kennedyville, said the money involved would probably be minuscule. “Where’s the cost, anyway? Isn’t it just an injection?”
But, Gilchrest said, the bill does “raise the whole issue to a higher level of scrutiny … where we can evaluate our values and feelings.”
Gilchrest said he is personally opposed to doctor-assisted suicide, but has friends who have been in enough pain to contemplate it. “Maybe it is debateable,” he said.
Assisted suicides are done by taking active steps intended to terminate life, such as the administration of a lethal dose of medicine. An FBI spokeswoman said the agency does not keep figures on how many physician-assisted suicides take place each year.
In recent years, Dr. Jack Kevorkian has performed more than 50 assisted suicides and has brought heightened attention to the issue.
The House bill does not apply to instructions often found in a “living will,” such as the withholding or withdrawal of medical treatment, nutrition or hydration. It also does not apply to the use of pain medication for terminally ill patients, even if the medication increases the risk of death.
The bill, introduced by Democratic Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, would also require the Department of Health and Human Services to develop programs to reduce the rate of suicide. Those programs would draw from money already budgeted.
All 16 House members voting against the bill were Democrats. Eighteen representatives – 10 Republicans and 8 Democrats – did not record a vote.
Hall introduced a similar bill in the House in September, but a committee vote was not scheduled.
All of Pennsylvania’s representatives joined Maryland’s Thursday in voting in favor of the bill. Democratic Rep. Robert Scott of Newport News was the only member of the Virginia delegation to vote against the bill. -30-