Oregon's Third Year of Physician-Assisted Suicide

National Conference of Catholic Bishops; February 23, 2001

Comments by Richard M. Doerflinger

Today's report from the Oregon Health Division on legally permitted physician-assisted suicides in 2000 provides no adequate information on abuses of the state's guidelines, and is not designed to do so. The 27 assisted suicides reported for this third year of Oregon's 'experiment' in lethal medicine are simply those cases which the physician-perpetrators themselves chose to report. The total number of actual cases, not to mention the number of times various 'safeguards' were distorted or simply ignored, remains concealed in the name of physician-patient confidentiality.

However, even the data released by physicians who assist suicides are disturbing enough. Twenty-seven Oregonians died last year from lethal overdoses of controlled substances deliberately prescribed by physicians, who invoked prescribing privileges granted to them by our federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The most significant changes compared to the previous year are as follows:

- A startling 63% of these patients (compared to 26% in 1999) cited fear of being a 'burden on family, friends or caregivers' as a reason for their suicide. Some patients and families are learning all too well the deeper message of Oregon's law: terminally ill patients have received this special 'right' to state-approved suicide not because they are special in any positive way, but because they are seen as special burdens upon the rest of us.

- 30% cited concern about 'inadequate pain control' as a reason for their death (compared to 26% the year before), despite claims by the Oregon law's defenders that legalizing assisted suicide would improve pain control and eliminate such concerns.

- Also rising is the percentage of victims who were married (67%, up from 44%) and who were female (56%, up from 41%). It seems some older married women in Oregon are receiving the message that they are a 'burden' on their husbands, and then acquiescing in assisted suicide.

- Despite a medical consensus that the vast majority of suicidal wishes among the sick and elderly are due to treatable depression, in only 19% of these cases (compared to 37% the previous year) did the doctor bother to refer the patient for a psychological evaluation.

- The median time between a patient's initial request for assisted suicide and his or her death by overdose also decreased markedly, from 83 days to 30 days. Oregon's experiment is taking on more of the features of an assembly line.

These signs of the 'slippery slope' in action, illustrating trends predicted by critics of the Oregon law, underscore the need to end this state's experiment before it claims more lives.

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