Assisted-Suicide Law Passes 10-Year Mark

Article excerpt

Byline: Tim Christie The Register-Guard

In the 10th year of Oregon's experiment with physician-assisted suicide, 49 terminally ill Oregonians ended their lives with a lethal dose of prescription medicine, continuing a trend of slow, steady growth in the use of the only law of its kind in the country, state health officials reported Tuesday.

Those 49 deaths in 2007 marked a 6.5 percent increase over the 46 deaths in 2006. The number of lethal prescriptions written by doctors was 85, an increase of 31 percent over the 65 prescriptions written in 2006, according to the state's annual report on the law.

Of the 85 people who received prescriptions, 46 took the medicine and died, 26 died of their underlying disease, and 13 were still alive at the end of 2007. In addition, three people who got prescriptions before 2007 died from taking the medication.

As in previous years, most participants were between 55 and 84 years old (80 percent), white (98 percent), well-educated (69 percent attended college), and had terminal cancer (86 percent). The median age of those who died in 2007 was 65, younger than in previous years, when the median age was 70.

Since the law took effect in 1998, a total of 341 Oregonians have used it to end their lives, including 42 Lane County residents.

Doctors reported to the state that three patients had complications in 2007, all of which involved regurgitating some of the medication. In addition, one patient lived for 3 1/2 days after taking the lethal dose - the longest anyone has survived after taking the medication. (In 2004, a patient awoke less than three days after taking the lethal dose.)

The median time for someone to die after taking a lethal amount of barbiturates is 25 minutes.

Dr. Bill Toffler, national director for Physicians for Compassionate Care, which opposes assisted suicide, was critical of the state report for providing so little information, including details about why one patient lived so long.

"What happened in those 3 1/2 days? We don't know and we never will," said Toffler, a professor of family medicine at Oregon Health and Science University. "There's truly a shroud of secrecy" around assisted suicide, he said.

Dr. Katrina Hedberg, a state epidemiologist who compiled the 2007 report, said the doctor whose patient lived for 3 1/2 days offered no explanation for why the patient lived so long. The law does not grant state health officials the authority to independently investigate such cases, she said.

In 2007, for the first time, no patients who requested assisted suicide were referred for a psychiatric evaluation. The law requires doctors to order such an exam if they believe a patient's judgment is impaired by a psychiatric or psychological disorder. The number of patients referred for psychiatric evaluations has steadily declined each year the law has been in effect. …