Oregon sets record for assisted suicides

WASHINGTON — Oregon recorded more deaths by physician-assisted suicide in 2007 than in any year in the decade since the practice was legalized.

The Oregon Department of Human Services recently reported 49 people committed suicide last year using lethal doses of drugs prescribed by doctors. The previous yearly high was 46 in 2006.

Oregon, the only state to legalize assisted suicide, has recorded 341 such deaths since its Death With Dignity Act took effect in late 1997.

"The report shows that the situation in Oregon is not only creepy but creeping," bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell told Baptist Press. "Compassion means providing alternatives to assisted suicide, not contributing to the death toll.

"I'm sure that physicians who assist in the death of their patients think they're providing a needed service, but so did the Nazi doctors under Hitler. Instead, they are turning medicine into murder," said Mitchell, director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in suburban Chicago and consultant to the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

None of those who committed suicide last year in Oregon with the assistance of a doctor were referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist before receiving a lethal prescription, a fact criticized by opponents of the practice.

Forty-three of the 49 who utilized assisted suicide were enrolled in hospice care.

An element "of hospice care is supposed to include suicide prevention when a patient expresses a desire to commit suicide," said bioethics specialist Wesley Smith on the bioethics.com weblog. "Wanna bet that didn't happen in these cases? How do we know? [T]here were zero referrals of suicidal patients to mental health professionals."

Mitchell said, "To whatever extent the hospice community is cooperating with assisted suicide, they are perverting the hospice tradition. Hospice and palliative care are about dying well, not killing patients."

Upon the March 18 release of the report, the Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation reiterated its opposition to assisted suicide, saying it:
  • "Undermines trust in the patient-physician relationship;

  • "Changes the societal role of physicians from healer to executioner;

  • "Endangers the value that society places on life, specifically for those who are most vulnerable."

Pastors and congregations need to engage the issue, Mitchell said. "Churches should ban together with Physicians for Compassionate Care to stop the madness in Oregon," he said.

Oregon's latest report also showed:
  • About one-third of those who took their lives said they experienced inadequate pain control or expressed concern about it.

  • The number of physicians who prescribed the drugs and were present when patients took them was 11, only 22 percent of the number of assisted suicides. In 2006, it was 33 percent.

  • The median duration of the patient-physician relationship was just eight weeks.

  • Cancer was by far the No. 1 disease, with 86 percent of those who committed suicide having a malignant tumor.

  • Twenty-six of the 49 people who died by assisted suicide were males; all but one were white; only 21 were married, and all had medical insurance.

  • Prescriptions written for lethal doses totaled 85, though many were not used last year.