Annual Report on Assisted Suicide in Oregon Released
The number of terminally ill patients in Oregon opting for physician-assisted suicide in 2000 "remained small," according to the third annual report on the state's physician-assisted suicide law, which was enacted in 1997. To compare how many and what kinds of patients requested physician-assisted suicide, Oregon Health Division officials looked through required physician reports of legally prescribed lethal medicines, interviewed physicians and reviewed death certificates. OHD's Amy Sullivan, Katrina Hedberg and David Hopkins wrote in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine that in 2000, the state's physicians wrote 39 prescriptions for lethal doses of medication, compared to 24 in 1998 and 33 in 1999. Of the 39 patients in 2000, 26 died after taking the medication, eight died from their disease and 5 were still living as of Dec. 31, 2000. In 1999, 27 patients died after taking the medication and in 1998, 16 patients died after doing so. The patients who died in 2000 after ingesting the medication represent an estimated death rate of nine per 10,000 deaths in Oregon. Patients who opted for physician-assisted suicide were similar demographically to terminally ill patients who did not choose physician-assisted suicide, except for level of education. As patients' level of education increased, their likelihood of choosing physician-assisted suicide also increased. For example, patients with a college education were more likely to opt for physician-assisted suicide than were patients with a high-school education. Sullivan and her colleagues also found that a more "significant" number of patients who chose physician-assisted suicide in 2000 had concerns about "being a burden to family, friends and other caregivers" than did patients in other years (Sullivan et al., New England Journal of Medicine, 2/22 issue).
As Oregon health officials released the report, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote Attorney General John Ashcroft, urging the Bush administration not to "do anything to thwart the law," the AP/Detroit Free Press reports. Wyden said, "There has been no substantiated claim of abuse of Oregon's law, nor has there been a rush to use the Oregon law." During the 106th Congress, Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) promoted a bill that would have revoked prescribing licenses of doctors who "deliberately use federally controlled substances to aid a patient's death," but the bill never made it to the floor. In the past, President Bush indicated that he would have supported such legislation. For his part, Ashcroft, while not a co-sponsor of the Nickles bill, has spoken against using government money to support Oregon's law (Pfleger, AP/Detroit Free Press, 2/22).
Advocates of physician-assisted suicide expressed support for Oregon's law in light of the newly released statistics. Eli Stutsman, lead lawyer for Oregon Death With Dignity and "chief architect" of Oregon's law, said, "After three years of improvements to end-of-life care in Oregon it is clear that the only thing the law's adversaries oppose is success. It is hard to argue with success, so our opposition is in a difficult place. Oregon's law is the impetus for improving end-of-life care in this state and throughout the nation" (ODWD release, 2/21). Estelle Rogers, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center, added, "Oregon is a model for the nation, a place where doctors and patients alike approach end-of-life issues with due seriousness and compassion. We believe it's time for President Bush and the attorney general to do the same" (DDNC release, 2/21). To view the OHD report, go to http://www.ohd.hr.state.or.us/chs/pas/ar-index.htm.