Magazine article The Human Life Review

Suicide Unlimited in Oregon

Magazine article The Human Life Review

Suicide Unlimited in Oregon

Article excerpt

Last week, Congress took up the issues of pain control and physician-assisted suicide, with the House voting 271-156 to pass the Pain Relief Promotion Act. The legislation, if passed, would improve pain control while deterring physician-assisted suicide. Doctors who prescribe lethal drugs for the purpose of killing their terminally ill patients would be subject to losing their federal licenses to precribe.

On the floor of the House and in comments to media, supporters of the bill referred specifically to the example of Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal. They were right to do so. Oregon's assisted suicide law continues to demonstrate that permitting doctors to kill parients is bad medicine and even worse public policy.

The most recent assisted suicide in Oregon is a case in point. On October 17, 1999, the Oregonian published an account of one patien who commited suicide with the assistance of medical professionals. The patient's family had provided the newspaper with the details of the assisted killing, unintentionally showing how Oregon's law endangers those who are the least capable of defending themselves.

Kate Cheney, age 85, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and wanted assisted suicide, but there was a problem. She may have had dementia, which raised questions of mental competence. So, rather than prescribe lethal drugs, her doctor referred her to a psychiatrist, as required by law.

Cheney was accompanied to the consultation by her daughter, Erika Goldstein. The psychiatrist found that Cheney has a loss of short-term memory. Even more worrisome, it appeared that her daughter had more of a vested interest in Cheney's assisted suicide than did Cheney herself. The psychiatrist wrote in his report that while the assisted suicide seemed consistent with Cheney's values, "she does not seem to be explicitly pushing for this." He also determined that she did not have the "very high capacity required to weigh options about assisted suicide." Accordingly, he nixed the assisted suicide.

Advocates of legalization might, at this point, smile happily and point out that such refusals are part of the way the law operates. But that isn't the end of Kate Cheney's story. According the the Oregonian, Cheney appeared to accept the psychiatrist's verdict, but her daughter did not. Goldstein viewed the guidelines protecting her mother's life as obstacles, a "road-block" to Cheney's right to die. So, she shopped for another doctor.

Goldstein's demand for a second opinion was acceded to by Kaiser Permanente, Cheney's HMO. This time a clinical psychologist rather than an MD-psychiatrist examined her. Like the first doctor, the psychologist found Cheney had memory problems. For example, she could not recall when she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The psychologist also worried about familial pressure, writing that Cheney's decision to die "may be influenced by her family's wishes." Still, despite these reservations, the psychologist determined that Cheney was competent to kill herself and approved the writing of the lethal prescription.

The final decision was left to an ethicist/administrator who works for Kaiser named Robert Richardson. Dr. Richardson interviewed Cheney, who told him she wanted the pills not because she was in irremediable pain but because she feared not being able to attend to her personal hygiene. After the interview, satisfied that she was competent, Richardson gave the okay for the assisted killing.

Cheney did not take the pills right away. At one point, she asked to die when her daughter had to help her shower after an accident with her colostomy bag, but she quickly changed her mind. Then, Cheney went into a nursing home for a week so that her family could have some respite from care giving. The time in the nursing home seemed to have pushed Cheney into wanting immediate death. As soon as she returned home, she declared her desire to take the pills. …

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