Statistics Paint Portrait of Assisted Suicide

Article excerpt

Byline: Tim Christie The Register-Guard

With six years of statistics on the books, a composite is emerging of the kind of Oregonians most likely to use the state's unique doctor-assisted suicide law.

Statistically, a young, white, highly educated man with cancer who lives in Western Oregon, has insurance and is enrolled in hospice is more likely to take advantage of the law, said Dr. Susan Tolle, director of the Center For Ethics in Health Care at Oregon Health & Science University.

"There is a tendency that younger people are more likely to follow through for whatever reason ... than an older person with cancer," she said.

State health officials on Tuesday released the sixth annual report on the voter-approved Death With Dignity Act, which allows terminally ill Oregonians to obtain a lethal prescription in order to hasten their own deaths.

In 2003, 42 terminally ill patients committed doctor-assisted suicide, an increase from 38 in 2002. All told, 171 patients have taken their lives with legally prescribed drugs since 1998, according to an annual report on Oregon's Death with Dignity Law.

Still, the number of physician-assisted suicides represents a tiny fraction of all deaths in Oregon - one-seventh of 1 percent of 31,000 annual deaths, said Dr. Mel Kohn, state epidemiologist with the state Department of Human Services, which issued the report.

The number of applications for lethal prescriptions also increased to 67 in 2002, up from 58 in 2002. A total of 30 different physicians wrote the 42 prescriptions for lethal medication.

In other findings, the report showed:

The main reasons patients chose PAS were concerns about losing autonomy; a decreasing ability to participate in enjoyable activities; and loss of dignity.

Rates of death by lethal medication were highest among patients suffering from cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) and HIV/AIDS.

Complications were reported in three cases. All involved regurgitation. One patient drank one-half of medication, then spit up about one-third. The patient lived for 48 hours after ingesting only about one-third of the intended dose. None of the patients regained consciousness. One family called EMTs to pronounce death but not to intervene or take the patient to the hospital.

The shortest time from ingestion to death was five minutes; the longest was 48 hours. Half the patients were unconscious within four minutes and dead within 20 minutes.

The percentage of patients referred to a specialist for psychological evaluation has declined, from 31 percent in 1998 to 5 percent in 2003.

George Eighmey, executive director of Compassion in Dying in Oregon, said the statistics show that physician-assisted suicide, if not routine, is gaining acceptance among patients and doctors. …