One Year Down: Oregon's Assisted-Suicide Law

Article excerpt

Contrary to the utopian dreams of ardent supporters and the dire predictions of some opponents, assisted suicide was a little-used option among the terminally ill in Oregon in 1998, the first complete year under the state's new assisted-suicide law. The questions raised by assisted suicide, however, continue to be a part of political, social, cultural, and religious discussions throughout the state.

According to the Oregon Health Division's first annual report on assisted suicide, issued an February 17, 1999, by the end of 1998, twenty-three people had received legal drugs to end their lives under the provisions of the law. Of these twenty-three, fifteen had actually used the drugs and died; six others had died from their illnesses; and two were still alive. Contrary to expectations, AIDS cases accounted for only two of the twenty-three. Most of those who applied for the drugs had cancer, with heart disease coming in second place. The Oregon Health Division will be sending out surveys to doctors throughout the state in 1999 to gauge how many requests have been made for information on assisted suicide, whether or not doctors suspected depression among those requesting assisted suicide, and what might have caused patients to drop their request for assisted suicide.

Oregon's largest newspaper, the Oregonian, which has strongly opposed assisted suicide editorially, has printed a number of articles examining the lives and the decisions of patients as they agonize over whether or not to invoke the assisted-suicide law. These stories, coupled with the low number of people using the law, indicate that a middle way is developing between the extreme predictions of the two sides in the assisted-suicide debate.

The fight against assisted suicide in Oregon has shifted since the overwhelming November 1997 vote, in which 60 percent of those who cast ballots favored the measure. Several members of Congress, led by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Congressman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) raised issues concerning the role of federal agencies regulating the prescription of lethal drugs by Oregon's doctors. But in April 1998, Attorney General Janet Reno ruled that Oregon's law fell within federal guidelines and that doctors who prescribed the drugs were not in danger of losing their licenses to dispense controlled substances. Both Hatch and Hyde have promised to revisit this issue during the 106th Congress.

In Oregon itself, opposition to the law has come from two fronts. First, the Oregonian has maintained its editorial attacks, focusing on the potential problems, the lack of respect for human life, and the regulatory murkiness of the law. Second, the groups that opposed the law have raised a number of issues about it in the context of health care throughout the state. …