21 people killed themselves under Oregon's suicide law last year

Thursday, February 7th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SALEM, Ore. (AP) _ Doctors prescribed lethal doses of medicine to 44 terminally ill people under Oregon's assisted suicide law last year, and 21 of the recipients took their lives.

The total number of deaths was a decline from 27 in each of the previous two years. Dr. Katrina Hedberg, deputy state epidemiologist, said there were no major complications in any of the deaths.

``Similar to past years, the data shows that patients were older, highly educated and most had cancer,'' she said Wednesday.

Overall, at least 91 people have ended their lives under the care of doctors since the state's unique Death With Dignity Act took effect in 1997, according to a report in Wednesday's New England Journal of Medicine.

The law is the subject of an ongoing court battle.

Last fall, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the government would suspend or revoke the licenses of doctors who prescribe federally controlled drugs to suicidal patients. The order was specifically aimed at overriding Oregon's law, and the state and several terminally ill patients sued, accusing Ashcroft of stripping away Oregon's right to govern the practice of medicine as it sees fit.

U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones granted the state's request for a temporary restraining order on Nov. 8, and later extended that order to give both sides time to prepare their cases. Jones could issue a ruling sometime this spring, but appeals could tie the issue up in courts for years.

While the number of people who used the law to end their lives dropped last year, 44 prescriptions were written for lethal doses of medication, an increase from 39 in 2000. The slight increase might be the result of more people seeking prescriptions after Ashcroft launched his legal assault, said George Eighmey, an advocate for the law.

A leading opponent of Oregon's law said he is hopeful the courts ultimately will side with the Bush administration.

``Last year, there were only 21 people in the whole country whose doctors were allowed to misuse federally controlled substances to give them overdoses instead of treating their pain, depression and fear,'' said Dr. Gregory Hamilton, spokesman for Physicians for Compassionate Care.

To request a prescription for a fatal dose of barbiturates, a patient must be 18, an Oregon resident, capable of communicating health care decisions and diagnosed with an illness that will lead to death within six months.