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Oregon's Death with Dignity Act: Pro-Suicide Doctors
Proponents promised legalized assisted suicide would occur in context of long-standing doctor-patient relationship. Instead, many, and over time perhaps most, deaths have involved short-term relationships with pro-suicide doctors doing cursory examinations.
During first year under the law, one-fourth of individuals seeking lethal prescriptions "had to approach more than one physician before finding one" who would comply. Yet Oregon officials did not interview the doctors who refused.1
In half the cases 1988-2004, the doctors knew the patients less than three months.
DHS statistics report "Duration (weeks) of physician-patient relationship" as ranging from "0 -1065." Apparently some doctors prescribed lethal medications for patients they know for just a few days or not at all.2
Yet AB 374 co-author Lloyd Levine dismissed concerns about "doctor shopping."3
The first person to die under Oregon law was turned down by her doctor and a second physician. The latter diagnosed her as "depressed".
Nonetheless, after just two telephone conversations, Dr. Peter Goodwin, medical director of Compassion in Dying, a pro-suicide advocacy group, decided she wasn't depressed, but "rational, determined and steadfast".
Dr. Goodwin referred her to a doctor willing to help her end her life. That doctor referred her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist met with the woman only once.
After just two weeks - the minimum time under the law - the doctor helped her die.4
Oregon M.D. Peter Rasmussen "says he has written several lethal prescriptions...." Dr. Rasmussen said 75% of the patients who come to him regarding assisted suicide are people he has never seen before, but he said he spends a minimum of three hours with each patient -- either in multiple visits or by telephone conversation -- before writing the prescription."5
Clearly Dr. Rasmussen believes three hours is enough time to decide to help a stranger commit suicide.
Doctors affiliated with Compassion in Dying have facilitated three-fourths of deaths.6
A few dozen pro-assisted suicide doctors participated in the vast majority of deaths. Yet official reports on the practice uncritically accept their accounts.
1. Department of Human Resources, Oregon Health Division, Oregon's Death with Dignity Act: the First Year's Experience (Portland, 1999), 10, 13.
3. Al Rantel Show, KABC-AM (Los Angeles), (March 4, 2005).
4. K. Foley, H. Hendin, "The Oregon report: Don't ask, don't tell," Hastings Center Report (May-June 1999): 37-42; Diane M. Gianelli, "Praise, criticism follow Oregon's first reported assisted suicides," American Medical News(April 13, 1998),
5. Andis Robeznieks,."Oregon sees fewer numbers of physician-assisted suicides," AMNews.com, April 4, 2005, http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2005/04/04/prsb0404.htm
6. Don Colburn, "Pharmacy Board will review failed assisted suicide," The Oregonian, (March 10, 2005), http://www.oregonlive.com/printer/printer.ssf?/base/news/111045932418141.xml
Paul K. Longmore
Professor of History
San Francisco State University