Little change in suicides since ruling

PORTLAND — The first report on assisted suicide since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a landmark Oregon law showed little change in the number of terminally ill patients who asked their doctors for a lethal dose of medication.

The report for 2005, the eighth year the law has been in effect, showed 38 people ended their lives under the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.

It was nearly the same number as 2004, when 37 people asked their physicians for a lethal prescription.

Advocates for a similar law proposed in California said they hope the 2005 Oregon report will help their efforts.

"We believe that ultimately this is a choice patients should be free to make," said California Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-San Fernando Valley.

Levine and fellow Democrat Patty Berg, D-Eureka, have proposed an assisted suicide bill modeled on the Oregon law that is awaiting a hearing in the California Senate Judiciary Committee sometime this spring.

The Supreme Court ruled in January that the Bush administration improperly threatened to use a federal drug law against Oregon doctors who prescribe lethal doses of medicine to dying patients who request it.

The ruling affirmed that states have the authority to regulate medical treatment of the terminally ill and could turn Oregon's unique law into a national model.

At least six states have proposed or are considering some form of an assisted suicide law, including California and Vermont, where a bill also is pending before the legislature.

Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center, said supporters also plan a ballot initiative in 2008 in Washington state based on the "successful and limited use of Oregon's carefully crafted law."

It was a Washington state case that led to a 1997 Supreme Court ruling on assisted suicide that helped set the stage for the Oregon law to take effect in 1998.

Oregon's law was first approved by voters in 1994 but did not take effect until it survived a court challenge and voters overwhelmingly defeated a repeal effort.

Although the matter is considered settled by the courts, supporters have been concerned about Congress passing a national law on assisted suicide.

Levine, however, said that Congress has been reluctant to challenge state authority over medical practice — a key part of the Supreme Court ruling.

"The national dialogue around the Terry Schiavo case clearly showed Congress and the rest of the politicians that people view this as a personal and private matter," Levine added.

He referred to the case of a Florida woman who died in March 2005 after her feeding tube was removed following 15 years of hospitalization.

Although the case differs from the Oregon law, which applies only to the terminally ill, it prompted Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to say in January it was a lesson to Congress that Americans do not want the government involved in end-of-life decisions.

The 2005 Oregon report, released Thursday, said that terminally ill patients repeatedly cite the loss of control over their bodies as a major concern leading to a request for a lethal prescription. They also cite decreasing ability to participate in activities that make life enjoyable and the loss of dignity.

Most were dying from cancer, and nearly all the rest were dying from Lou Gehrig's disease or AIDS, according to the report.

The report by the Oregon Department of Human Services also showed the median age of those choosing assisted suicide was 70.

Dr. Mel Kohn, state epidemiologist, noted the total number of deaths under the law — 246 people since 1998 — reflects a small portion of the average 31,000 annual deaths in Oregon.