Rate of physician-assisted suicide in Oregon stable

More ask for prescriptions than actually use them

The number of Oregon residents who ended their lives in 2005 by employing the state’s legal physician-assisted suicide law was twice the number that it was in 1998, the first year after the law was passed.

But the 2005 figure — 38 — is essentially unchanged from 2004, meaning that for four years in a row the number of lethal prescriptions taken under the state’s Death with Dignity law has remained stable.

The Death with Dignity Act makes it legal for physicians to prescribe life-ending drug doses for terminally ill patients. The act, condemned by organizations opposed to physicians facilitating suicides, withstood its most serious challenge thus far when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that the U.S. attorney general could not prosecute physicians who write the prescriptions under federal anti-drug abuse laws.

The challenge presented by the suit, Gonzalez v. Oregon, apparently did not influence the number of prescriptions written or the number used in 2005, state public health officials said when the figures were released. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling did not address the legality of physician-assisted suicide, only whether doctors writing prescriptions under the law were violating federal anti-drug laws.

Every year since the law was passed, the number of patients who actually used the prescriptions to end their lives has been fewer than the number of prescriptions requested, a sign proponents of the act say that many patients merely want the option to end their lives to be available.

The numbers since 1998, according to the Oregon Department of Public Health, are:

  • 1998: 16 suicides, 24 prescriptions written;
  • 1999: 27 suicides, 33 prescriptions written;
  • 2000: 27 suicides, 39 prescriptions written;
  • 2001: 21 suicides, 44 prescriptions written;
  • 2002: 38 suicides, 58 prescriptions written;
  • 2003: 42 suicides, 67 prescriptions written;
  • 2004: 37 suicides, 60 prescriptions written;
  • 2005: 38 suicides, 64 prescriptions written.

According to state figures, the majority (84%) of physician-assisted suicides in 2005 involved cancer patients. The 64 total prescriptions were written by 39 physicians. Most (89%) said their primary end-of-life concern was an inability to participate in activities important to them.