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Oregon's Euthanasia Program
Since 1998, due to a legal opinion by U.S. attorney general Janet Reno, Oregon physicians have used their federal prescribing licenses from the Drug Enforcement Administration to order controlled substances - usually secobarbital - for use in terminally ill patients' suicides. However, new attorney general John Ashcroft was an outspoken critic of the Reno opinion when he served in the U.S. Senate. He authored a 1997 letter to Reno signed by seven other Senators urging a contrary opinion, and criticized her final ruling as "bending the law" to facilitate assisted suicide. George W. Bush also criticized the ruling and endorsed a bill to reverse it, the Pain Relief Promotion Act, during the presidential campaign.
The Oregon Health Division's third annual report on operation of the "Death with Dignity Act," summarized in the New England Journal of Medicine, was said by the law's supporters to offer "compelling evidence" that the Act "has given Oregon citizens comfort and control at the end of their lives." Said Estelle Rogers, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center: "Oregon is a model for the nation, a place where doctors and patients alike approach end-of-life issues with due seriousness and compassion. We believe it's time for President Bush and the Attorney General to do the same" [U.S. Newswire, 2/21/01].
But the same report hailed by Rogers as "a third year of good news" was said by a prominent critic of Oregon's law to confirm that "the assisted-suicide experiment has failed." Dr. Gregory Hamilton of Physicians for Compassionate Care says that Oregon officials monitoring the practice of assisted suicide "have neglected to report meaningful results." Case reports are chiefly self-reporting by the physicians involved, and no effort is made to find "complications" or problems not reported by those assisting the suicide [PCC press release, 2/21/01].
The Oregon Health Division reported 27 deaths from physician-assisted suicide in 2000, the same number as in 1999. The only case it found of incomplete compliance with the Act was one in which a physician submitted a consent form signed by one witness instead of two. Dr. Hamilton notes, however, that the chief case of assisted suicide to receive extensive news reporting in 2000 showed more irregularities than this.
The case of Joan Lucas received feature-length coverage for two days in her local newspaper in June. Suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, she originally tried and failed to commit suicide by herself on January 16 - but she and her family soon found more expert "assistance" and she died on February 3.
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The state's official report shows no sign of such problems. It does indicate that only 19% of the patients in 2000 received any psychological evaluation (compared to 37% in 1999). And while 26% of the patients cited a concern about being a "burden" on others as a reason for their suicide in 1999, that figure jumped to 63% in 2000.