Assisted Suicides Down Slightly in 2004
Byline: Tim Christie The Register-Guard
State health officials released their seventh annual report on Oregon's doctor-assisted suicide law Thursday that showed a slight decline last year both in the number of suicides and the number of lethal prescriptions.
In 2004, 37 terminally ill Oregonians took their lives under the provisions of the Death With Dignity Act, down 12 percent from the 42 who did so in 2003. Doctors wrote 60 prescriptions last year, down 12 percent from the 68 written in 2003.
State epidemiologist Dr. Mel Kohn said the decline in doctor-assisted suicide was statistically insignificant.
"I don't see this as a dramatic change," he said. "With any health event, the numbers do bounce around a little bit."
Assisted suicides continue to represent a tiny fraction of the 31,000 total deaths in the state each year, Kohn said. In 2004, there were 12 doctor-assisted suicide deaths for every 10,000 total deaths, or about one in 800 deaths.
Dr. Susan Tolle, director of the Center for Ethics in Health Care at Oregon Health & Science University, said that while the raw numbers may fluctuate from year to year, the rate of assisted suicide has remained stable.
The state's annual report comes at a time when Oregon's law - the first and only one of its kind in the United States - faces an uncertain future. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Bush administration's legal challenge to the law during its fall term.
Since 1998, 208 Oregonians have hastened their deaths using the law. After seven years, certain demographic patterns have emerged about the patients who use the law. Men and women were equally likely to use the law. Whites accounted for 203, or 98 percent of the assisted suicide deaths, and Asians accounted for the balance.
Divorced and never-married people are twice as likely to use the law as married and widowed people. Oregonians with a bachelor's degree were 8.3 times more likely to use the law than those without a high-school degree. Eastern Oregonians are far less likely to use the law than their counterparts living in western Oregon.
The 2004 numbers also continue a trend that shows far more people get lethal prescriptions than ever follow through. Of the 326 prescriptions written under the law since 1998, 208, or 64 percent, were used to hasten death. (Some prescriptions written in 2004 may be used in 2005.)
"For many people, the simple act of asking for a prescription and having it in their hands satisfies whatever it is that is driving them to do this," Kohn said. "They may die from their underlying disease before they take it or they may change their mind."
That so many people never use their lethal prescriptions "in and of itself indicates this law is something that should remain on the books and is working well," said George Eighmey, executive director of Compassion in Dying of Oregon, an advocacy group that helps dying patients with assisted suicide.
Dr. Kenneth Stevens, an oncologist and president of Physicians for Compassionate Care, which opposes doctor-assisted suicide, said the fact that the law is used so infrequently is "an indication it's not needed." He said he's concerned that few patients are getting a psychiatric evaluation before getting a lethal prescription. …