In Oregon, you may barely know the doctor who issues your lethal prescription

Credit: ashley rose via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Credit: ashley rose via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

.- Requests for physician-assisted suicide in Oregon have almost doubled annually since 2013, records for the state’s public health authority show.

“What’s happened in America – and particularly in Oregon – is that we are changing absolute values, and then replacing it with personal choice,” Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life, told CNA of the rise in requests for lethal prescriptions.

According to data published by the Oregon Public Health Division earlier in February, there were 218 lethal prescriptions written there in 2015, a sharp increase from 155 in the previous year, and 121 in 2013.

Although the average yearly increase in prescriptions was 12 percent, in 2014-15 it was 24 percent.

These prescriptions are legal for terminally-ill patients who request them, as long as they find a physician willing to issue them. There are some regulations – two physicians have to confirm details such as a patient’s home address and their cogency to make the decision, for instance.

Physician-assisted suicide is also legal in Washington and Vermont, while a law has passed through California but has not yet gone into effect. The “Death With Dignity” movement has worked to have the practice legalized in all states.

The proliferation in cases of physician-assisted suicide in Oregon has brought with it evidence of troubling incentives for depressed patients to quickly kill themselves without a lengthy period of consideration.

For instance, only five of the 132 persons who took lethal dosages in 2015 in Oregon were referred for psychiatric evaluation. Some years no referrals are made, Atteberry noted.

“They’re not receiving any sort of help. It’s being ignored,” she said.  

A much higher number than five could have been medically depressed. According to a study conducted a few years ago by researchers from Oregon Health and Science University and the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and published in the British Medical Journal, 58 adults who had requested a lethal prescription or had shown interest in doing so were surveyed. 26 percent of them had depression, the researchers determined.

Atteberry said that Compassion & Choices, a non-profit working to spread the availability of physician-assisted suicide, has been pressuring more doctors to honor the requests of patients for lethal prescription.

Sometimes little more than a phone call is needed for the prescription.

Although few doctors could originally be counted on to reliably hand out lethal prescriptions, the number is increasing.

“We have doctor-shopping, because if a patient’s own doctor says no, it’s not the least bit difficult to call up Compassion & Choices and find a doctor who will,” Atteberry added.

Thus doctors who allow a patient to make a life-ending decision may not even be their regular physician.

Among patients who ingested a lethal dose in Oregon in 2015, the median length of their relationship with their doctor was just 9 weeks.

And from the patient’s first request for a lethal prescription until their death, the median length of time was just 45 days in Oregon in 2015. Cases lasted as few as 15 days.

“That’s not your long-time physician and your long deep thought that you’ve had between,” Atteberry reflected.

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