Byline: By Madeleine Brindley Western Mail
Fears that legalising physician-assisted suicide could lead to a "slippery slope" of vulnerable people having their lives cut short by doctors appear to be misplaced, according to research published today.
A study has found no evidence of an increase in the premature deaths of vulnerable people in the US state of Oregon and the Netherlands, where the practice is legal.
Opponents of physician-assisted suicide have claimed that allowing this form of euthanasia could see doctors opting to kill sick patients rather than treat them or offer them substantive palliative care.
They believe it would make it easier to end the lives of those people who might be deemed a burden to society or their families.
But the research shows that this is not the case. The researchers from the University of Utah assessed all cases recorded as physician-assisted deaths in Oregon between 1998 and 2006, as well as three independent studies on the topic. And they looked at end-of-life decisions in the Netherlands in four government-sponsored nationwide surveys conducted in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2005, as well as specialised research. The figures show that only a few people choose the option of physician-assisted suicide.
In Oregon, 292 people have taken advantage of the 1997 legislation - 0.15% of all deaths.
In the Netherlands, voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide have been tolerated since the 1980s, and legal since 2002, provided strict guidelines are followed.
Advance directives, requesting euthanasia in the event of a coma or dementia, are now also legal.
Around 1.7% of all deaths are categorised as voluntary euthanasia, and 0.1% as physician-assisted suicide in the Netherlands.
The average age of people receiving help to die was around 70 in both places. Most had cancer. There were higher numbers of people with Aids among those choosing to die, the data showed.
But there was no evidence of any excess bias towards race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, disability, chronic illness or mental ill health in either place, the researchers found. …