OREGON: 3rd Assisted Suicide Prompts Call For Information
At least one more physician-assisted suicide has apparently occurred in Oregon, but no one who participated in the case will discuss it publicly, prompting state officials, doctors and activists to demand more information on how the state's new law is being used. On Saturday, the Portland Oregonian reported that a source in the Portland medical establishment, who spoke on the condition of anonymity but is not affiliated with an assisted-suicide advocacy or opposition group, had learned of an assisted suicide from a person involved. "The terminally ill patient apparently did not suffer complications when taking the lethal medication," the source said. The case would be the third known assisted suicide in Oregon since the landmark Oregon Death With Dignity Act took effect Oct. 27, 1997. The law allows terminally ill, mentally competent adults to obtain a prescription for medication to end their lives. The Oregonian noted that the "[i]nability to confirm this report directly from those involved indicates that the public airing of one of the first two assisted-suicide cases, announced in March, probably will be an exception" (Hoover, 5/9).
More Details Sought
The assisted-suicide law requires the Oregon Health Division to collect information on cases and release an annual statistical report that does not identify the patients doctors. But on Sunday, the Oregonian reported that the "medical details that the Health Division collects are scant," and that legislators and activists on both sides of the issue are discussing "how best to gain important information about the assisted-suicide experience without unduly interfering in people's lives." Arthur LaFrance, who has followed the assisted-suicide law as a professor at the Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College, said "the need to know about assisted-suicide cases falls somewhere between patient privacy and health matters of public concern. Death is not a communicable disease. But where a new stratagem or procedure is undertaken, historically, society has positioned itself between principles."
The Oregon Health Division is already discussing whether to get additional information from doctors involved in assisted-suicide cases. "Clearly, the more information, the more useful it's going to be," said Katrina Hedberg, deputy state epidemiologist for the Health Division. "But we have not finalized anything. We're in the process," she said. Hedberg noted that questions -- much broader than whether the patients had hospice care or health insurance -- might be beyond the scope of the Health Division. But these questions may not beyond the scope of a joint interim legislative committee charged with fine-tuning the assisted-suicide law, she said. State Sen. Ken Baker (R), co-chairman of the committee, said that the committee intends to take up the public information issue. "What we really don't know is, what are the profiles of people who are availing themselves of this?" he said. "Checking 20 points off on a form is not what you're looking for." Baker said that the legislative committee will discuss how to "open the language" in the law. Finally, Compassion in Dying, a right-to-die advocacy group, is beginning a database of assisted-suicide cases in Oregon and plans to survey willing families and doctors, according to Barbara Coombs Lee, the organization's leader. The group's three-page survey includes many of the same questions that Baker's legislative committee would like to have answered (Hoover, 5/10).