ASSISTED SUICIDE IN OREGON

After having started on April 7th  with a series of articles about prolife matters with two articles in Spanish, we bring today the first one in English. The intention of publishing now these articles is to make them available on the Internet, as they have been published in different magazines in the past but are hard to find now. Also unlike the two previous articles, this one is not about abortion, but about euthanasia, another hot topic in the defense of life.

 

What's really happening in Oregon 

Assisted Suicide in Oregon: Deaths More Widespread

Brian Johnston, Executive Director of the California ProLife Council.

Article published in "Pensamiento Provida" after the 1st Prolife World Congress that took place in Madrid, Spain, in 2003.

 

Reporting is essentially voluntary

Oregon’s 2002 official report on the practice of assisted suicide within that state found that 38 died by doctor’s prescription that year, up from 21 officially reported for 2001. But both the accuracy and nature of the report were hotly debated.   State Health officials are required by law to issue the reports, based on death certificates, interviews, and reports filed by doctors and pharmacies.  

Dr. Kenneth Stevens, a Portland, Oregon cancer specialist, and President of Physicians for Compassionate Care, questioned the accuracy of the report. “There is no outside, independent monitoring. I worry that there may be things happening that are not reported,” he said. 

Diane Coleman, President of Not Dead Yet, a disabilities rights advocacy organization, echoed his sentiments. “There is no mechanism to assess or address physician non-reporting or non-compliance.” The most recent reports clearly contain the caveat that they “do not include patients and physicians who may act outside the law.” 

The official report for 2002 found that: 38 of the 39 victims were white; the average age was 69; the three most commonly cited motives were loss of autonomy, a decreasing ability to enjoy activities, and loss of control of body functions. Thirty-four patients used the prescription drug pentobarbital, two used secobarbital, and two used Tuinal. In previous years the drug of choice had exclusively been secobarbital, which Eli Lilly stopped producing in May 2001.  Each of these drugs is a federally controlled substance.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a ruling in November 2001 prohibiting federally controlled substances from being used to kill. The state of Oregon appealed, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jones temporarily blocked the Ashcroft ruling and the practice was allowed to continue. General Ashcroft has appealed the Jones ruling before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and hearing is set for May 7. 

Economic factors

Assisted suicide in Oregon is particularly troubling in as much as the state is the only one in the union that has adopted a ‘prioritized hierarchy’ of Medicaid payment. The net result is that while the state health system will deny many treatments to patients based on their age and condition, it will cover their intentional death. Many more expensive palliative, or pain-relief treatments are not covered, but the state will still cover suicide prescriptions.

Oregon HMO’s are also promoting the practice, and attempting to recruit willing physicians. On August 6, 2002, Janet Price, an administrator for Kaiser Permanent Northwest sent a memo to 829 physicians directing them to Dr. Robert Richardson of Kaiser’s Ethics Service if they were willing to prescribe lethal medicine. Richardson is controversial for having authorized the intentional death of Kate Cheney, an HMO patient found by psychiatrists to have been both demented and under familial pressure, and therefore an inappropriate candidate for “assisted suicide.” 

Unreported deaths cast ominous shadow

In addition to the officially reported increases in sanctioned suicide, the Portland Oregonian has reported on a concomitant increase of suicides that have swept through the state in the last 3 1/2 years. In a front-page story of December 29, 2002 entitled, Did They Have to Die? The Sunday Oregonian found that 94 depressed and suicidal individuals who had been referred to the Oregon mental health system took their own lives, ”under troubling circumstances such as delayed treatment, neglect, abandonment and other lapses in case management.’ While the article did not tie the suicides to the Death With Dignity Act, it did note that many of the suicides were not reported as such, and seriously questioned the Oregon Health System’s efforts to protect the emotionally vulnerable.

“Official Reports” in Netherlands also called into question

The Netherlands has also legalized euthanasia, ostensibly in a controlled environment, with physician oversight. Official records for the year 2002 found an 8% drop in the number of intentional deaths. But a parallel government report, the Remmelink Report, has found 60 percent physician non-reporting and that one in four Dutch euthanasia deaths are not voluntary. 

On February 27th 2003, the Dutch television program “Reporter” aired an expose of this practice of  ‘shortening lives’ in the Netherlands. The program found that many thousands of cases of euthanasia were going unreported. According to doctors surveyed by the program (355 lung specialists), the official figures offered by the Dutch government are not to be trusted. Many doctors said they didn’t report acts of euthanasia because they resent the ‘intrusion’ of the euthanasia protocols and the duty to report. It is worth noting that in Oregon there is no penalty for non-reporting.

 

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Note from the webmaster: after this article was publised in 2003, unfortunately the situation hasn't got better. The evolution since 2004 to our days is explained in this web page from religioustolerance.org, More information about this subject, written by Brian Johnston, the author of this article, can be found in this page of the California Prolife web .