Assisted Suicide

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Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law


Summary

Oregon's Death with Dignity Act allows terminally ill Oregon residents to obtain and use prescriptions from their physicians for self-administered, lethal medications. Physicians and patients who follow the act's requirements are protected from criminal prosecution, and the choice of legal physician-assisted suicide cannot affect the status of a patient's health or life insurance policy.

Oregonians first passed the act in a November 1994 referendum by a margin of 51% to 49%. However, a legal injunction delayed its immediate implementation. It was not until 1997 when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the injunction that physician-assisted suicide became a legal option for terminally ill patients in Oregon. Since that time, 70 people have ended their lives with the help of a doctor. But, people's ability to use the law is once again threatened.

 

The latest issue is whether assisted suicide is a “legitimate medical purpose” within the meaning of the 1970 Federal Controlled Substances Act. Under the act, physicians can prescribe federally regulated drugs for legitimate purposes only. In a November 2001 letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, citing United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, 532 U.S. 483 (2001), stated that assisted suicide is inconsistent with the public interest. Oregon's attorney general was successful in obtaining a temporary restraining order on Ashcroft's directive. A hearing on the directive is expected in April.

In Oakland Cannabis Buyers', the U.S. Supreme Court held cooperatives that distributed marijuana for medical purposes violated the Controlled Substance Act because marijuana has no proven medical value, a necessity for distributing controlled substances. OLR Report 2001-R-0894 provides a more detailed analysis of this case.

As stated earlier, 70 patients have died from physician-assisted suicide since 1997. Most of these patients had some form of cancer and stated the fear of losing autonomy as their primary reason for wanting to end their lives. Oregon's health department does not keep statistics on the total number of physicians writing legal prescriptions, but it does report that physicians wrote a total of 96 lethal prescriptions between 1997 and 2001.

Death With Dignity - Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law

The Death with Dignity Act (ORS §§ 127.800 to 127.897) allows terminally ill Oregon residents to obtain and use prescriptions from their physicians for self-administered, lethal medications. Under the Act, ending one's life in accordance with the law does not constitute suicide. However, the law is referred to as “physician-assisted suicide” because it allows people to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications prescribed by a physician for that purpose.

The Death with Dignity Act legalizes physician-assisted suicide, but specifically prohibits euthanasia, where a physician or other person directly administers a medication to end another's life.

To request a prescription for lethal medications, the Death with Dignity Act requires that a patient voluntarily express his wish to die and be:

  • an adult (age 18 or older),
  • an Oregon resident,
  • capable (able to make and communicate health care decisions), and
  • diagnosed with a terminal illness (incurable and irreversible) that will lead to death within six months.

Patients meeting these requirements are eligible to request a prescription for lethal medication from a licensed Oregon physician. To receive a prescription for lethal medication, the following steps must be fulfilled:

  • the patient must make two oral requests to his physician, separated by at least 15 days;
  • the patient must provide a written, witnessed request to his physician (two witnesses);
  • the prescribing physician and a consulting physician must confirm the diagnosis and prognosis;
  • the prescribing physician and a consulting physician must determine whether the patient is capable;
  • if either physician believes the patient's judgment is impaired by a psychiatric or psychological disorder, he must refer the patient for a psychological examination;
  • the prescribing physician must inform the patient of feasible alternatives to assisted suicide, including comfort care, hospice care, and pain control; and
  • the prescribing physician must request, but may not require, the patient to notify his next-of-kin of the prescription request.

To comply with the law, physicians must report to Oregon Health Services (OHS) all prescriptions for lethal medications. Reporting is not required if patients begin the request process but never receive a prescription. Physicians must inform pharmacists of the prescribed medication's ultimate use. Physicians and patients who adhere to the act's requirements are protected from criminal prosecution, and the choice of legal physician-assisted suicide cannot affect the status of a patient's health or life insurance policies. Physicians and health care systems are under no obligation to participate in the Death with Dignity Act.
Source: www.cga.ct.gov/2002/rpt/2002-R-0077.htm

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 Death usually comes too early or too late. - - English Proverb



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