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Oregon offers ‘culture of death,’ bioethicist says after latest report

WASHINGTON (BP)–Oregon is offering its residents a “culture of death where patients are coerced to die,” a Southern Baptist bioethicist said upon the release of the state’s fourth annual report on its assisted-suicide law.

A total of 21 people committed suicide with a physician’s assistance in 2001, according to the latest report on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. It marked a decline from the 27 suicides reported each of the previous two years.

The number of terminally ill patients receiving a prescription for lethal medication was 44, however, the most since the law became effective in 1997. Fourteen of the 44 did not take the lethal dosage but died from their disease; 11 were still alive at year’s end. Two persons who received prescriptions during the year before used them in 2001.

The idea assisted suicide is “free and voluntary is bogus,” said Ben Mitchell, biomedical consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Patients who choose death are being coerced by their illness, threatened by their own fears of the dying process, and aided and abetted by a medical culture that offers lethal medication as the only alternative to a painful death.

“When patients use their freedom to give up their ability to make future choices, something truly disturbing is at work,” Mitchell said. Instead of a culture where patients are coerced to die, residents of Oregon “should be offered a culture of life, where compassionate, comfort care will maximize their choices,” Mitchell said.

Opponents of assisted suicide criticized the data collection, which is based on information from the doctors who helped with the suicides. They also castigated the fact only three of the 17 suicide victims for whom information was available were referred for psychiatric evaluation.

“The way the data are gathered and the fact that so few psychiatric consults are requested further demonstrates that Oregonians are being offered substandard medical care in the name of libertarian freedom,” said Mitchell, an associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago. “The emperor has no clothes, and it’s time Oregonians and the rest of Americans see the assisted-suicide movement as it truly is — slavery parading as freedom.”

Burke Balch of the National Right to Life Committee said in a written statement, “When modern medicine can effectively control pain and treat depression, it is especially tragic that Oregon is still fostering these wholly unnecessary deaths.”

Gregory Hamilton of the Oregon-based Physicians for Compassionate Care said in a written release, “Medical studies demonstrate that most patients even inquiring about assisted suicide suffer from depression, often unrecognized by the doctor. Yet only three of the Oregon assisted-suicide victims were even referred for a psychiatric opinion. Such neglect of the mental health concerns of suicidal patients would be considered malpractice in any other state.”

Of the 17 assisted-suicide victims in 2001 about whom such information was reported, 16 feared losing their autonomy and 13 were concerned about a decrease in the ability to participate in activities that make life enjoyable. Only one was concerned about inadequate pain control. That information was based on interviews with doctors who assisted in the suicides.

Of the 21 patients who died by assisted suicide last year, 13 either were widowed, divorced or never married.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft acted in November to penalize those who assist in suicides. His action reversed a ruling by his predecessor, Janet Reno that allowed the use of federally regulated drugs in assisted suicide. A federal judge, however, has placed a restraining order on Ashcroft’s directive.

If it goes into effect, Ashcroft’s ruling would not overturn Oregon law, but it would mean physicians who prescribe or pharmacists who distribute federally controlled substances to aid in suicide may have their licenses to prescribe and dispense such drugs rescinded.