Assisted suicide nearly doubles in Oregon; 'duty to die' lamented

WASHINGTON (BP)--The number of people who legally committed suicide with a physician's assistance in Oregon nearly doubled last year.

Thirty-eight people used drugs prescribed by doctors to kill themselves in 2002, contrasted with 21 the year before, according to a March 5 report by the Oregon Department of Human Services. Oregon is the only state that has legalized assisted suicide.

The 81 percent increase in 2002 marked by far the highest number of assisted suicides since Oregon's Death With Dignity Act took effect in 1998. The number of such suicides in previous years was 16 in 1998 and 27 in both 1999 and 2000, according to The Oregonian newspaper.

The report also found:

-- 84 percent of the 38 people who committed assisted suicide in 2002 feared "losing autonomy."

-- 84 percent were concerned about a decreasing ability to take part in enjoyable activities.

-- 47 percent were concerned about losing control of bodily functions.

-- 37 percent were concerned about burdening their family, friends or caregivers.

-- 26 percent feared inadequate pain relief.

Opponents of assisted suicide said the increase in deaths, as well as some of the statistics, verified their concerns about legalizing the practice.

"These numbers are just further confirmation of what we have always known and what is demonstrated even more dramatically in the Dutch experience over the last decade and a half," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "When you start allowing euthanasia, voluntary or otherwise, you have begun a steep slide down an extremely slippery slope into a dark abyss littered with the victims of the culture of death."

In a written statement, Burke Balch of the National Right to Life Committee said supporters of legalizing assisted suicide "had claimed it would be used only in dire circumstances, as a last resort. Tragically, however, the report just released fulfills the fears of euthanasia opponents that once assisted suicide is accepted for 'hard cases,' it will spread to more and more circumstances until it is justified as just another 'choice' -- an exercise of 'autonomy.'"

Of the fact more than a third feared being a burden on others, Balch said, "This shows that the so-called 'right to die' is becoming a perceived 'duty to die.'"

Pro-lifers continued to argue that pain control, not assisted suicide, for the terminally ill should be the focus of healthcare professionals.

"I am concerned that some doctors in Oregon are depending on these drugs to end the life of patients, rather than providing proper end-of-life care," said Kenneth Stevens, president of Physicians for Compassionate Care and chairman of the radiation oncology department at Oregon Health and Science University. "Physician-assisted suicide empowers doctors, not patients. Unfortunately, in Oregon, some physicians are using their medical license as a lethal license."

Physicians for Compassionate Care also expressed concern the state government is cutting back on support for life-sustaining medicine, including for disabled patients, while still funding assisted suicide under Medicaid. Effective March 1, ODHS informed "tens of thousands" of Oregonians the state would no longer pay for their medication, according to PCE.

"It is sad and dangerous that in today's medical environment we are promoting physician-assisted suicide instead of supporting life-sustaining care for those who need it," PCE said in a written release.

The new report also found 84 percent of those who used legal drugs to commit suicide last year had cancer.

Thirty of the 38 received advise from Compassion in Dying of Oregon, a pro-assisted suicide organization, The Oregonian reported.

The latest report came as the Bush administration seeks to win a court battle to end Oregon's use of federally controlled drugs in assisted suicides. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear in May an appeal of a federal judge's ruling upholding the assisted-suicide law.

Last year, federal judge Robert Jones permanently blocked an order by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to bar the use of federally regulated drugs by doctors assisting patients in committing suicide. In a 2001 directive, Ashcroft declared the use of such drugs for assisted suicide is not permitted under the Controlled Substances Act. While his ruling did not overturn Oregon law, it meant physicians who prescribe or pharmacists who distribute federally controlled substances to aid in suicide may have their licenses to prescribe and dispense such drugs rescinded. Ashcroft's order reversed a ruling by his predecessor, Janet Reno, that allowed the use of federally regulated drugs in assisted suicide.

The Netherlands has been a leader in assisted dying, but reports of abuses of the practice, including involuntary euthanasia, have been revealed in recent years.


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