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‘Medieval medicine’: Ore. assisted suicide claims 38

WASHINGTON (BP)–Physician-assisted suicide in Oregon claimed about the same number of victims in 2005 as it had each of the three previous years, according to the annual report released March 9.

Thirty-eight people committed suicide with a doctor’s assistance last year in the only state that has legalized the practice. In 2004, 37 cases of assisted suicide were reported. That followed 42 such deaths in 2003 and 38 in 2002. Before 2002, the largest number of assisted suicides in a year was 27.

Oregon has recorded 246 deaths by assisted suicide since its Death With Dignity Act took effect in late 1997.

A Southern Baptist bioethicist rejected the idea that a stabilizing of the number of assisted suicides is “good news.”

“Thirty-eight medical killings is 38 too many,” said C. Ben Mitchell, a consultant for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and an associate professor of bioethics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago. “Assisted suicide is medieval medicine. This is the 21st century. We have the most advanced medicine the world has ever known. Physicians have no reason to kill their patients. We have pain management tools that can relieve patient pain.

“If helping patients kill themselves is the best Oregonian physicians can do, then God help them,” Mitchell told Baptist Press. “If physicians cannot provide appropriate comfort care for dying patients, then God help us all.”

The release of the report came about seven weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government cannot bar doctors from prescribing lethal amounts of drugs for people seeking to commit suicide. In a 6-3 vote Jan. 17, the justices sided with the state of Oregon, which argued that its right to regulate medicine trumps the federal government’s authority to control drug usage in regard to assisted suicide, which involves a physician prescribing but not administering a drug to take a person’s life.

Oregon’s latest report showed:

— Only two of the 38 people who died were referred for psychiatric evaluation during the assisted suicide process. This was the third year in a row for a referral rate of only 5 percent. In 1998, the first full year for legalized assisted suicide in Oregon, the referral rate was 31 percent.

— The percentage of physicians who prescribed the drugs and were present when patients took them improved slightly to 23 percent. In 2004, it was 16 percent. The average for 1998-2004 was 29 percent.

— As in previous years, the leading reasons patients chose to kill themselves were concerns about an increasing inability to participate in activities that make life enjoyable (89 percent), a loss of dignity (89 percent) and a decrease in autonomy (79 percent).

— Cancer was by far the leading disease, with 32 of those who committed suicide having a malignant tumor.

— Twenty-three of the 38 people who died by assisted suicide were males; 36 were white; 20 were married; the youngest was 42 years old and the oldest 90; 35 were enrolled in hospice care; and all had medical insurance.

Mitchell decried the almost complete failure by prescribing doctors to recommend psychiatric evaluation.

“The fact that almost none of the patients were examined for depression or other psychological maladies is chilling,” Mitchell said. “Any patient who wants to end his or her life needs the benefits of counseling. There are better options than medical suicide.”

Physicians for Compassionate Care, an Oregon organization that opposes assisted suicide, said in a written statement March 9 the practice “does nothing to improve health care at [the] end of life. What the law actually does is protect doctors from peer review and from prosecution for medical killing.”

PCC also said assisted suicide:

— “Undermines trust in the patient-physician relationship;

— “Alters the role of the physician in society, from the traditional one of healer to executioner;

— “Endangers the value that society places on life, specifically for those who are most vulnerable.”

Mel Kohn, state epidemiologist in Oregon, said the report from the Department of Human Services shows “little change in the demographics and characteristics among those who are using this law,” according to The Oregonian, a Portland newspaper.

“Is it the old, the frail, the poor, the minorities, the vulnerable? The answer is ‘no’ to all of those,” said Susan Tolle, an ethicist at Oregon Health and Science University, The Oregonian reported.

A total of 64 prescriptions for lethal amounts of medicine were written last year. Only 32 of the recipients of those prescriptions died after taking the drugs. Fifteen died from their diseases, and 17 were alive at the end of the year. Six of those who died in 2005 received prescriptions the previous year.