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Supporters in Congress call it the Pain Relief Promotion Act, but its effect will have less to do with alleviating pain than with intimidating doctors. It's a bad bit of medicine.

What is more, this legislation puts the lie to claims that this Republican Congress is somehow more constitutionally pure, devoted to returning power to the states. The truth is that neither party can resist telling the states what to do. The dividing line runs along the subject at hand, not the principal of states' rights.

The law was written, and passed in the House, in response to the actions of Oregon voters who twice approved a law allowing physician-assisted suicide. The law was a reasonable effort at navigating an intensely difficult subject, but you don't have to support assisted suicide to oppose this bill. You just have to believe that politicians should not be in the business of telling doctors how to treat suffering patients.

The law acknowledges that alleviation of pain is a legitimate goal, even if it heightens the risk of death. But is says doctors may not seek to cause death as a way to relieve pain and, in the case of such a death, empowers the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to look into the doctor's mind and determine his intent in prescribing pain-killers. A doctor convicted under the law would face a mandatory 20-year prison sentence. How hard would you try to relieve someone's pain if a non-expert opinion could put you behind bars? Wouldn't it make more sense to do less for your patient?

Americans are already suspicious about the role insurance-company pencil-pushers have assumed in influencing the kind of care they receive. Now they are supposed to accept government bureaucrats doing the same?

A vote on this bill is pending in the Senate, where opponents, mainly Democrats, are planning to filibuster. If it passes anyway, President Clinton should veto it. The states are capable of finding their own way on the subject of assisted suicide, and doctors don't need this kind of help.

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