Arguments for Suicide Law Perpetuate Myths

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), December 5, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Arguments for Suicide Law Perpetuate Myths

Byline: DANIEL L. PHILLIPS For The Register-Guard

LARRY SWISHER, in his Nov. 14 column on physician-assisted suicide, and the subsequent Register-Guard editorial of Nov. 24, perpetuated several myths about Oregon's law, doing a grave disservice to critically ill Oregonians.

The first myth: Oregon's doctors must demonstrate proof of mental competency in candidates for physician-assisted suicide. The only proof the Oregon Health Division requires is a statement from the physicians involved who prescribe the lethal medication. There is no independent review of medical records; there is no mandated mental health evaluation. If a mental health evaluation is done and finds the patient not a candidate for physician-assisted suicide, there is no requirement that the negative evaluation be submitted.

In other words, those involved can keep seeking a second evaluation, and a third, and so on until they get two physicians to state the patient is a candidate, no matter how many physicians and mental health professionals believe the patient is not. This has in fact happened in at least two cases that we know about since Oregon's law went into effect.

The second myth: Because the physician and patient mutually consent to assisted suicide, it follows that it should be permitted. This ignores the complex nature of the physician-patient relationship.

An analogous situation is that of consensual sexual activity between a psychiatrist and his or her patient. There is very little disagreement that such behavior is unethical, because the uneven nature of their relationship makes true consent impossible. Not only is the patient taken advantage of, but if we as a community were to grant approval to such behavior, it would fundamentally change the dynamic and expectations for all those who would seek psychiatric help in the future.

Dr. Patricia Wesley's critique of the most widely known case of assisted suicide, in a 1993 issue of Law and Medicine, gives insight as to how the psyche of the physician and patient involved in assisted suicide can become intertwined in a way that causes similar damage to society and a fatal outcome for the patient.

The third myth: Attorney General John Ashcroft's decision will discourage states and the medical profession from trying to establish safeguards against abuse of physician-assisted suicide.

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