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Ore. assisted-suicide data challenged

WASHINGTON (BP)–More people than ever before died in Oregon last year by physician-assisted suicide, but a bioethics specialist questioned if the state’s recent report provides a full accounting in the only state to legalize the practice.

The Oregon Department of Human Services reported 46 people took their lives in 2006 using lethal doses of drugs prescribed by doctors. That was an increase of eight over 2005. Previously, the largest number of assisted suicides reported in a year was 42 in 2003.

Wesley Smith, who writes online at www.bioethics.com, described the report as “virtually meaningless,” however, saying “its statistical analysis depends almost entirely on death doctor self-reporting.”

“(T)here is no independent oversight by the state over assisted suicide, (and) the DHS does not even have the power or budget to investigate potential abuses,” Smith wrote.

The state acknowledged its limited authority in a news release that accompanied the report.

“The role of DHS is that of a steward of data about the use of the law,” state epidemiologist Mel Kohn said. “This is a law, not a DHS program, and our only legal role is to report accurate aggregate data about the use of the law.”

Smith said the DHS “merely compiles statistics and only spot checks the accuracy of the data they receive. Not only that, but after the annual reports are published, the DHS destroys the data from which it was complied, which prevents outside researchers from even verifying the DHS analysis. Thus, there is no way to know whether these reports are accurate, or instead, whether they are more a matter of garbage in-garbage out.”

Oregon has recorded 292 deaths by assisted suicide since its Death With Dignity Act took effect in late 1997.

Oregon’s latest report, released March 8, showed:

— Only two of the 46 people who died by assisted suicide in 2006 were referred for psychiatric evaluation during the process. This was the fourth year in a row for a referral rate of 5 percent or less. In 1998, the first full year for legalized assisted suicide in Oregon, the referral rate was 31 percent.

— The number of physicians who prescribed the drugs and were present when patients took them was 15, an improvement to 33 percent. In 2005, it was 23 percent.

— As in previous years, the leading reasons patients chose to kill themselves were concerns about a decrease in autonomy (96 percent), increasing inability to participate in activities that make life enjoyable (96 percent) and a loss of dignity (76 percent).

— Cancer was by far the leading disease, with 40 of those who committed suicide having a malignant tumor.

— Twenty-six of the 46 people who died by assisted suicide were males; all but one were white; only 23 were married; 35 were enrolled in hospice care; and only one did not have medical insurance.

The Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation (PCCEF), which opposes Oregon’s assisted suicide law, expressed concern about the lack of details provided in the latest report. Previous reports had provided “narrative-type information” that was not included this year, according to the PCCEF.

The PCCEF also noted the median duration for the relationship between an assisted-suicide patient and his doctor was only 15 weeks, with a range from one week to 767 weeks. “We know that many of these patients are receiving prescriptions for lethal medications from doctors that are new to them, rather than from their usual doctor,” the organization said in a written statement.

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