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Assisted-suicide reports reinforce concerns of foes

WASHINGTON (BP)–The report on Oregon’s second year of legalized assisted suicide demonstrates again “intentional harm has become a form of treatment” by some physicians, said a Southern Baptist bioethics specialist.

The Oregon Health Division reported 27 people took their lives with the assistance of a physician in 1999, as compared to 16 in the first full year of the practice’s legalization.

In interviews with 19 people whose family members were assisted in their suicides, the following reasons were given for their decisions:

–68 percent cited fear of losing control of bodily functions;

–63 percent named concern about losing autonomy;

–53 percent cited fear of physical suffering, such as pain and difficulty breathing or swallowing;

–47 percent named concern about becoming a burden on others.

In addition, 74 percent of family members said those who committed suicide wanted to control the time and kind of death.

Interviews with 27 doctors showed the concerns cited most often by those seeking assisted suicide were loss of autonomy and a reduced potential to take part in activities that make life enjoyable, both 81 percent.

The Oregon law, which took effect in the fall of 1997, allows a person who has less than six months to live, in the opinion of two doctors, to seek approval for a fatal dose of drugs. Physicians may prescribe, but not administer, the drugs. Oregon is the only state to legalize assisted suicide.

The Oregon report was issued the same day a new report on The Netherlands showed problems in assisted suicide in that country result in doctors intervening in nearly one in five cases to ensure death. The report in the New England Journal of Medicine also said medication prescribed to bring about death did not work as expected in almost as many cases, according to The Chicago Tribune.

A doctor intervened in 18 percent of assisted-suicide attempts, making the death euthanasia in the process, and the medication failed 16 percent of the time, according to the report. Technological problems or unexpected side effects happened 7 percent of the time, the report said.

The Netherlands permits both assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The report from the European country underscored warnings opponents of assisted suicide in this country have expressed about the path Oregon is heading down with the legalization of the practice. It also demonstrated assisted suicide is not as simple as portrayed by its promoters.

The failure of some patients to die the first time a lethal drug is given is the “dirty little secret of the euthanasia program in The Netherlands,” said Ben Mitchell, consultant on biomedical issues for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Euthanasia, far from being a good way to die, is actually a very gruesome experience all around.”

“Assisted death” and “compassionate care” are “two distinct ways of handling patients,” Mitchell said. “In the one case, doctors treat the pain by killing the patient. In the other, they care for the patient by controlling the pain.

“Pain management, palliative care and hospice are the only humane forms of care” for patients who fear a painful death, said Mitchell, assistant professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago.

“Intentional killing is homicide,” Mitchell said. “There’s no way around that. Assisted suicide is premeditated, assisted homicide. There is no excuse for doctors who kill their patients,”

The Oregon report “provides evidence of the dangerous trends associated with legalized euthanasia,” said Burke Balch, director of medical ethics for the National Right to Life Committee, in a written statement. “There have been warnings that the ‘right to die’ would soon be perceived as a ‘duty to die.'”

The report’s finding that nearly half feared being a burden to others “shows this attitude is taking hold among those who consent to be killed,” Balch said.

At least one assisted-suicide attempt in Oregon apparently went unreported. Cynthia Barrett, an attorney and colleague of Barbara Coombs Lee, a leading assisted-suicide advocate, said in a December speech an Oregon man’s assisted suicide went amiss, according to the March issue of Brainstorm, a monthly magazine in the northwest United States.

With his family at his side, a man took the lethal dosage that had been prescribed but soon began exhibiting some disturbing symptoms that were serious enough to cause his wife to call for paramedics, Barrett said. They took him to a Portland hospital and revived him, she said, according to the report. Later he was transferred to a nursing home, where he died some time later, Barrett said in the speech.

The report followed by only three weeks the telecast of a how-to, assisted-suicide video on a Eugene, Ore., public-access cable television station. In the video “Final Exit,” leading euthanasia advocate Derek Humphry explains methods of committing suicide for the terminally ill. Assisted-suicide opponents, as well as Lee, decried the telecast.

Congress is attempting to end, in effect, assisted suicide in Oregon by blocking the use of federally regulated drugs for that purpose. All the lethal drugs used in Oregon’s assisted suicides have been federally controlled substances, according to a report by an anti-assisted suicide organization.

The House of Representatives passed the Pain Relief Promotion Act in October by a 271-156 vote. The bill supports the use of federally controlled substances for the alleviation of pain, even if the risk of death increases in the process, but it clarifies federally regulated drugs may not be used intentionally to assist in a suicide. The measure says the U.S. attorney general may not make exceptions in the case of a state that permits assisted suicide or euthanasia.

The legislation was proposed as a result of a 1998 ruling by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno enabling federally regulated drugs to be used in Oregon to help people commit suicide. She ruled the Controlled Substances Act does not authorize the federal government to take action against doctors who prescribe medication for terminally ill people who desire to take their lives under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously states could prohibit assisted suicide, but its action did not prevent states from legalizing the practice. In the same year, President Clinton signed into law legislation banning federal funding of assisted suicide.

At its 1996 meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution condemning assisted suicide.