An Oregon report on assisted suicide for the year 2000 shows that more patients than ever before took their lives because they felt they had become a burden on friends, family and caregivers.
That finding parallels fears Catholic leaders have expressed since the Oregon suicide law was first approved in 1994: the right to die will become a duty to die.
The Oregon Health Division report found that, for the third year in a row, loss of autonomy was the main reason patients sought lethal prescriptions from doctors.
But 63 percent of patients said they were concerned about being a burden. That compares to 26 percent in 1999 and 13 percent in 1998.
Doctor-assisted suicide did not increase significantly, says the report, issued Feb. 21. In the year 2000, 27 people took their lives using the Oregon law. That compares with 16 in 1998 and 27 in 1999.
State health investigators called for a discussion about the phenomenon of feeling like a burden, but dismiss any connection to outside pressure to die sooner.
"That Oregon physician-assisted suicide patients almost always discussed concern about becoming a burden in conjunction with losing autonomy suggests that it might be part of patients’ ideas about losing independence," says the report.
Those troubled by assisted suicide had more to say.
"The tragedy of the report is that a number of our fellow Oregonians have died without experiencing sufficient love and support from the entire community to dissuade these individuals from physician-assisted suicide," said Bob Castagna, executive director of the Oregon Catholic Conference. "As a community, we are called to solidarity with vulnerable dying persons. . . As difficult as it may be to accept at times, we also are called to open ourselves to be loved by the community during our own time of need and vulnerability."
More people than ever before received lethal prescriptions in 2000, but not all used them. Doctors prescribed deadly drugs for 39 patients, up from 24 in 1998 and 33 in 1999.
"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," says Richard Doerflinger, policy analyst for the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pro-life office.
Doerflinger also points out that the process of assisted suicide in Oregon has sped up. The median time between a patient’s initial request for assisted suicide death by overdose decreased from 83 days to 30 days — "signs of the slippery slope," Doerflinger says.
Dr. Gregory Hamilton, a Portland psychiatrist and spokesman for Physicians for Compassionate Care, says the "vast majority" of patients considering suicide have depression. The feeling of being a burden, he contends, is a psychological condition that can be helped with therapy.
"Those psychological fears should have been treated and taken care of in the victims of assisted suicide, like they were in the other 99.91 percent of dying individuals," Dr. Hamilton says. "It’s an outrage that they weren’t."
The National Right to Life Committee also highlighted the increased reports of feeling like a burden, adding that a third of the patients were motivated by fear of pain.
"We should be working to improve access to existing means of pain relief, not killing those in pain," says Burke Balch, director of the committee’s medical ethics department.
As Oregon made its report, Sen. Ron Wyden asked the Bush Administration to leave his state’s suicide law alone.
"There is no evidence of a crisis that would compel the federal government to pursue extraordinary means to overturn Oregon’s law," Wyden wrote to Attorney General John Ashcroft. "There has been no substantiated claim of abuse of Oregon’s law, nor has there been a rush to use the Oregon law."
Wyden, a Democrat, spent much of his legislative energy in 1999 and 2000 foiling legislation that would thwart assisted suicide while it would improve pain care nationwide.
Ashcroft is expected to overturn a 1998 Clinton Administration ruling, in which then-Attorney General Janet Reno decided that federal drug agents cannot pursue Oregon doctors who write lethal prescriptions in accord with the Death with Dignity Act.
All 70 patients who have died by using the Oregon law took barbiturates, a substance regulated by the federal government. The 1970 Controlled Substances Act says that drugs may be used only for "legitimate medical purposes." The debate centers on whether assisted suicide meets that definition.
The above article appeared in the Catholic Sentinel, Portland, Oregon. on March 2, 2001.