March 2, 2024

Assisted suicide in Oregon creeps ahead

One of Oregon's assisted suicide request forms

Forty-two people died in Oregon through doctor-assisted suicide in 2003, the highest number since it was legalised in 1997, according to figures released this month. The increase was small and assisted suicide still only accounts for 1 death in 1,000 in the state. But the news is sure to add fuel to the smouldering euthanasia debate in the US. President Bush’s Attorney-General, John Ashcroft, effectively banned assisted suicide in Oregon for about a year before he was overruled by a court. The federal government’s appeal against that decision is still pending.

In total, 67 prescriptions for lethal drug doses were written in 2003 by 42 doctors. Of these, 39 died after taking the drug, 18 died of their illnesses, and 10 remained alive at the end of the year. Of the doctors who wrote the prescriptions, 27 wrote one, 8 wrote 2 and 6 wrote 3. One doctor wrote 6. Two patients who died in 2003 had received their drugs in 2002 and one in 2001.

The statistics show that people who ask for doctor-assisted suicide are older, highly-educated Oregonians with terminal cancer or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also called Lou Gehrig’s disease). They are more likely than others to be divorced or single.

A persistent critic of the legislation, Dr Kenneth R. Stevens, chairman of radiation oncology at Oregon Health & Science University and president of Physicians for Compassionate Care, slated the lack of information about the deaths. “Information is self-reported to the state by the prescribing doctors,” he says. “In only 29% of the cases were they present when the patient took the drugs… we really don’t know how these patients are dying.”

Dr Stevens also noted that only 5% of assisted suicide patients were referred for a psychological evaluation, even though depression is the most common condition for suicide. However, the executive director of Compassion in Dying of Oregon, George Eighmey, countered that the law is working well. “It is seldom used, and when used causes no major complication.” His group advised 33 of the 42 people who died.