OREGON: Reports Shows Compliance With Suicide Law
Eight terminally ill patients have committed doctor-assisted suicide since Oregon's Death With Dignity law took effect last November, according to a report by the state Health Division, and all eight cases reportedly were without complications. The AP/Portland Oregonian reports that in addition to the eight suicides, two people received authorization for lethal prescriptions but died before they were able to take them (Frazier, 8/19). Katrina Hedberg, epidemiologist for the Oregon Health Division, said, "All 10 reports received by the Division documented full compliance with the provisions of the Act" (Oregon Death With Dignity release, 8/18). The Health Division released the following facts about the 10 patients:
- Five were men, five were women.
- Nine suffered from cancer, one from heart disease.
- Their average age was 71.
- Eight of 10 had more than a high school education.
- Of the eight who committed suicide, all deaths occurred within 7 hours of taking the drugs, with an average time of 40 minutes.
- Of the eight who committed suicide, the time between taking possession of the lethal prescription and death ranged from one to 16 days, with an average of two days.
The New York Times reports that according to the state report, all of the deaths followed the guidelines set down by the Death With Dignity Act: The patients received "a medical evaluation from at least two doctors to confirm their terminal condition"; patients were confirmed by their doctors as being "capable of making and communicating health care decisions" and patients complied with the "15-day waiting period between the first and second requests for the lethal drugs" (Howe Verhovek, 8/19).
Humane Or Devaluation?
Supporters of the law were heartened by the report, claiming it disproved fears that suicides would become widely prevalent. Barbara Coombs Lee, executive director of the Compassion and Dying Federation, said, "Only eight Oregonians in nearly 10 months have taken the medication to end their suffering, and all of them were older patients facing difficult deaths" (McCall, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 8/19). She added, "We had to deal with lots and lots of assertions that complications would be the norm. Our experience so far is that there been have absolutely no complications and that all of these eight people have experienced apparently peaceful and humane deaths." Oregon Public Radio's Colin Fogerty reported that terminal patients said that the law has made it easier to deal with their terminal illnesses. Barbara Oskamp, who has brain cancer, said, "It has literally lessened my level of fear and I don't know of anything that could make me feel better and a little less afraid." But opponents of the law, who include the Catholic Church and the American Medical Association, were not convinced that the findings were at all positive. Dr. Greg Hamilton, president of Physicians for Compassionate Care, said, "All we can tell from the report of the state of Oregon is that some Oregonians are having their lives devalued and stigmatized by the state government itself, with lethal consequences" ("Morning Edition," NPR, 8/19).
What's To Come
Oregon's Health Division is in the process of conducting in-depth interviews with the physicians who administered the lethal prescriptions, and will release a report early next year that will include a summary of those interviews (Oregon Death With Dignity release, 8/18). In Washington, DC, a bill pending in Congress would "block the Oregon law by prohibiting doctors from prescribing drugs for the purpose of assisting suicide" (AP/Inquirer, 8/19).
In related news, an Oregon legislative panel "established amid Oregon's debate about doctor-assisted suicide" is investigating whether terminal and chronic patients receive sufficient palliative care and pain medication. The Task Force on Pain and Symptom Management was created in 1997. The panel "heard a litany of complaints Monday from people who said most doctors either don't care or don't know what to do in the face of a patient's chronic pain." Kathleen Haley, executive director of the state Board of Medical Examiners and a member of the task force, said "that many doctors' resistance to prescribing pain medication stems from a 'war on drugs' mentality and traditional views" that do not view patients' pain as worth the risk of drug addiction and abuse (Wright, Eugene Register-Guard, 8/18).
On the heels of a recent controversy in Florida in which a medical examiner "found ... lethal levels of morphine in the blood of five patients whose deaths he ruled homicides," Miami toxicologist W. Lee Hearn "is developing a study that will allow experts" to determine the relation between morphine dosage and levels in the blood. The Miami Herald reports, "Hospice leaders, who welcome the study, are worried that" the five deaths will "threaten the comfort of hundreds of terminally ill patients throughout the state" (Long, 8/19).