ASSISTED SUICIDE: Oregon Report Bolsters Support
A new study has found that in its first year as law, Oregon's Death With Dignity Act resulted in 15 complication-free, physician-assisted deaths -- motivated by desire for "autonomy and personal control" rather than by financial or other concerns. According to a report by the Oregon Health Department and the CDC in today's New England Journal of Medicine, eight men and seven women with an average age of 65, suffering from cancer, heart or lung disease, died of "[d]rug overdose, legally prescribed" in 1998 (Verhovek, New York Times, 2/18). Eight other patients received the lethal drugs from their physicians, but six died before taking them and two are still alive today. The patients lost consciousness within five to 20 minutes of taking a "fast-acting barbiturate" and an anti-vomiting agent, after which most died within an hour, four died after more than three hours and one patient "died 11.5 hours afterward." The authors found no evidence that assisted suicide was "chosen by or forced on terminally ill patients who were poor, uneducated [or] uninsured" (Chin et al., NEJM, 2/18 issue). Primary author Gene Chin noted, "There were no horror stories" (McMahon, USA Today, 2/18).
Today's report was a boost for Death With Dignity proponents, who claim "the study disproved fears of opponents that the law would result in a lower standard of care, or that terminally ill patients would be pushed into suicide by financial concerns." Barbara Combs Lee, executive director of the Compassion in Dying Federation, said, "The Death With Dignity Act is being implemented in Oregon very reasonably and very carefully. Just a few individuals are using it, and when it is used, it is used very carefully" (Detroit Free Press, 2/18). She added, "People want to live ... and they will exhaust every possibility to do so" (USA Today, 2/18). George Eighmey, executive director of Compassion in Dying of Oregon, said, "This law has been seldom and carefully used with no failures, no complications, no misdeeds, no mistakes."
This Changes Nothing
But opponents of the measure were unconvinced by the study's findings. Portland Archbishop John Vlazny said the results were cause for "sadness and shame," charging, "In allowing assisted suicide to continue, the State of Oregon dismisses the value of human life" (New York Times, 2/18). Physicians for Compassionate Care President N. Gregory Hamilton charged "the study might understate the actual number of physician-assisted suicides," as the practice is "shrouded in secrecy" (USA Today, 2/18). And National Right to Life Committee spokesperson Lori Hougens said, "We view it as a tragedy that people think they would be better off dead and that they would be a burden to someone else" (Kerr, Newsday, 2/18).
MD Reluctance, Remorse
The study uncovered some resistance and remorse among Oregon physicians: Forty percent of the 15 patients were forced to seek a second or even third doctor to prescribe the lethal medication after their first choice declined, and the report states that "for some of these physicians, the process of participating in physician-assisted suicide exacted a large emotional toll." Physicians who assisted a suicide experienced "feelings of isolation" and "expressed frustration that they were unable to share their experiences with others because they feared ostracism by patients and colleagues." The study authors concluded that reluctant doctors "are likely to affect the ability of otherwise eligible patients to choose physician-assisted suicide" (NEJM, 2/18 issue).