Mar 6, 2003
Thirty-eight Oregonians took their own lives under a controversial physician-assisted suicide law last year, the most since the practice became legal in 1998, the state reported on Wednesday.
The number was up more than 80% from 21 deaths in 2001, despite opposition from critics including US Attorney General John Ashcroft.
"I don't know the answer to why there was an increase," said Mel Kohn, the state epidemiologist. "Some have suggested the increase is due to publicity from the Ashcroft lawsuit. I do not have any data to support or refute that."
Ashcroft has sued to halt the progress in a case now winding its way through the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and expected to one day reach the Supreme Court.
The only one of its kind in the nation, the law took effect in 1998 after twice being approved by Oregonians at the polls.
Some object to it on religious or moral grounds. Others say it is unnecessary because patients can get adequate end-of-life treatment. Others worry that the law might lead to euthanasia.
Despite the increase, assisted suicides represent only 0.1% of deaths in Oregon, the report noted.
"There is still just a very, very few people interested in this," said Ann Jackson, executive director of the Oregon Hospice Association, which initially opposed the law, but now supports it. "As we've gone down the pike the last 5 years, we can see that, yes, the law can be used responsibly," she added.
The Arizona legislature last month introduced similar legislation to allow terminally ill people to die in a "painless, humane and dignified manner."
Since 1998, a total of 129 Oregonians have committed suicide under the law. Most people who have used the law were older, well-educated and had cancer.
The law has safeguards. To get a prescription, the patient must have
two physicians agree that they have less than 6 months to live. The patient
must request the drugs several times, once in writing, and must be able
to take the drugs themselves. A physician cannot administer them.
© 2003 Reuters Ltd