What’s happening with Oregon law?

As the assisted-suicide debate reached a boiling point in Washington, DC, tentative information began to emerge in Oregon about the realities of assisted suicide under that state’s 1994 Death with Dignity Act, which finally went into effect last November.

In mid-August, officials of the Oregon Depart ment of Human Resources in Portland announced that the deaths of 10 terminally ill patients who obtained prescriptions for lethal medications under the provisions of the act had been reported to the state by their physicians.

Eight of the 10 died after taking the lethal medication, while two didn’t take the medication and died from complications of their illness, reports state medical epidemiologist Katrina Hedberg, MD. All 10 cases showed full compliance with the law, including obtaining a second medical opinion, obeying a 15-day waiting period, seeking a determination of their terminal illness, and demonstrating competence to make the decision.

The small reporting sample showed an average age of 71 years, and all but one of the patients had cancer. The length of time between obtaining the lethal prescription and death ranged from the same day to 16 days, with an average of two days. While concerns have been raised about the effectiveness of medications used for assisted suicide, in the eight reported cases, patients died within seven hours of taking the medication, on the average within 40 minutes.

The state plans to conduct in-depth interviews with the physicians of all patients who obtain lethal medications under the Death with Dignity Act, for inclusion in a report on the act, to be issued in early 1999. Meanwhile, Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden has issued a call to create a bipartisan working group of health professionals and key legislators to determine what federal policy should be concerning end-of-life care and how options for those nearing the end of life might be improved.