Bioethics @ TIU

What’s really happening with doctor-assisted suicide?

Posted January 18th, 2018 by Jon Holmlund

Recently, Wesley Smith posted on the National Review’s “Corner” blog new concerns that Oregon’s “Death With Dignity” law may not be as tightly regulated as advertised.  Specifically, a Swedish fellow named Fabian Stahle, who evidently is troubled by the prospect that his country might embrace doctor-assisted suicide, claims to have carried out an e-mail exchange with someone in the Oregon Health Authority to ask how the law is interpreted in that state.  The responses included a statement that, to qualify for assisted suicide, a patient must have a “terminal illness” but said illness could include a potentially treatable condition which, if allowed to take its course without treatment, would be expected to cause death within 6 months.  That suggests that assisted suicide might be legally employed in Oregon in cases in which the patient refused treatment or the patient’s insurance company refused to pay for effective treatment.  The Oregon official cited by Mr. Stahle is quoted by him as having written that “the law is best seen as a permissive law…[that] does not compel patients to have exhausted all treatment options first, or to continue current treatment.”

You can read Mr. Stahle’s entire account here.

I must say that, while I mention this for this blog, I have not attempted to confirm these assertions by contacting the Oregon officials myself, and my first reaction is skepticism that what Mr. Stahle reports is in fact the correct interpretation of the Oregon law.  Even I, a staunch opponent of assisted suicide, must allow that the intent of such laws seems to be that assisted suicide is intended for cases for which potentially effective treatment options HAVE been exhausted.  But I suppose that further investigation is in order.

While at it, Wesley Smith also cited a 2005 British House of Lords inquiry into the Oregon law, from which a group apparently opposed to assisted suicide posted some comments here.  The entire House of Lords transcript, BTW—all 744 pages of it!—is available here for interested parties.  I must confess I have not had time to read the whole thing.

The most recent data summary from the state of Oregon that I am aware of is for 2016.  It reports 133 deaths from taking drugs from 204 lethal prescriptions filled in the state in 2016.  These numbers were slightly down from 135 and 214 in 2015.  The 2016 “death with dignity” rate is cited as 37.2 per 10,000 deaths in Oregon.  Of the 133 people who died with medical assistance in Oregon in 2016, 96% were white, about 80% had cancer, nearly all had some form of insurance, and about 85% were age 65 or older.  The two most commonly-stated reasons for seeking assisted suicide were loss of autonomy and loss of enjoyment of life—about 90% in each case.  Inadequate pain control was listed for about one-third of the cases.  The median time the patient had been seeing his or her prescribing doctor was 18 weeks, and the prescribing doctor was present for 13 of the 133 deaths.

Of course, all of this assumes the reporting is complete and accurate.  I have no information that would lead me to believe otherwise.  I state the facts in the preceding paragraph without commentary or, in some cases, without the irony I feel in reading them.

I can’t conclude from the Oregon report that patients who availed themselves of assisted suicide there were foregoing potentially effective treatment for their disease, much less that an insurance company refused to pay for it.  Of course, there is the one famous case of a person there getting a “suggestive” note about PAS from his insurer, some years ago—I can’t locate it at the moment.

In general, I’d say that the concerns raised through the above-mentioned posts are ones we must keep in mind, but that the slope may not yet have gotten that slippery.

Finally: the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine will hold a conference in Washington DC on Monday and Tuesday, February 12 and 13.  Looks like a webcast is available.  You can find information about it, and sign up to attend in person or by the web, here.  I’m going to try to at least watch some of it. From the information at that site:

This workshop will include discussions, and background materials, that address:

  • What is known empirically about the access to and practice of physician-assisted death in the U.S. and in other countries?
  • What are potential approaches for physicians, including those practicing in states where it is legal, those who receive a request for access when the practice is legal in nearby states but not in the state of practice, and those who practice in a state where it is legal but are personally opposed to physician-assisted death.
  • What is known about how palliative care and hospice services have incorporated the practice of physician-assisted death in states where it is legal?

One Response

  1. Anita Showalter, DO says:

    I am a physician from Washington where we have a similar physician assisted suicide law as Oregon. It is true that patient only has to receive a terminal diagnosis with predicted 6 months to live to qualify for a lethal prescription. First, physicians are notoriously inaccurate when making the prognosis of life expectancy after diagnosis of a terminal illness. Patients do not have to have gone through any treatment prior to request, so the patient may make the decision without exploring any treatment options that could significantly extend life expectancy. Intolerable pain is often used as an argument in favor of these laws, but it is rarely the reason a patient makes the request, which is, as the article stated, most often because of fear of lack of autonomy and fear of being a burden. Current palliative care practices allow most patients from having excessive pain. As physicians, we should be focused on killing the pain, not the patient. Expectations that physicians will participate in determining the time of a patient’s death run counter to the training, expertise and role of physicians as healers.

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