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June 13, 2007
Column #1,346
Advance for June 15, 2007
(second of two-part series)
Oregon's Assisted Suicide
by Mike McManus

Last week the California Legislature was about to vote to legalize Physician-Assisted Suicide.  The Speaker of the Assembly was a co-sponsor.  The bill had passed two committees.

Oddly, it did not matter to those pushing the bill that Californians had rejected it by a 54-46 percent referendum in 1992, or that Gov. Schwarzenegger said the issue ought to be left up "to the people," implying he would veto it.


Supporters of Physician-Assisted Suicide (PAS) are indefatigable. Why? California Assemblywoman Patty Berg, co-sponsor of the euphemistically named "Compassionate Choices Act," said that PAS was needed so people would have the comfort of knowing "they could escape unbearable suffering if that were to occur."

That neglects the fact that there is a cure for most pain - medications plus loving care to deal with depression that prompts some to consider suicide. A desire for suicide should be viewed as a cry for help, a plea for true compassion.

Evidence? Of 17 suicide attempts, 16 fail because the person really did not want to die.

California's PAS supporters pointed to "the success" of Oregon's "Death With Dignity Act," passed by a bare 51-49 percent margin in a 1994 referendum. Over nine years, 292 people killed themselves with physician-prescribed death pills. "The practice has settled into a nice, safe, conservative practice," alleged  Barbara Coombs Lee, President of the PAS advocacy group, Compassion & Choices.

However, when the California Assembly leaders did a nose count on the bill, they realized they lacked the votes to win and withdrew it.  Why?

For the same reasons a similar bill in Hawaii did not even get out of committee and one in Vermont was crushed by a House vote of 82-62 on March 21.

"Between 1991 and 2006 75 bills were introduced in 21 states, all of which failed," said Rita Marker, President of the nation's leading PAS foe, the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.

"At first, it sounds good to people, but when they start to think about it, they realize that if you change this, you have changed everything.  It is dangerous stuff. Assisted suicide changes things economically, creating a very inexpensive way to provide care. Oregon's Medicaid will pay only $1,000 for home care or hospice care, because it's cheaper to give death prescriptions. .

"If a person is diagnosed with a particular disease, an Oregon doctor has a legal obligation to tell patients that assisted suicide is among their available options. Even if a doctor does not push it, the dynamics have changed when the doctor does not focus on treatment and being kept comfortable, but says, `I can kill you or allow you to care for yourself,'" Marker said.

If it is a young family and the patient has a terminal condition, is unable to work, he knows checks are not coming in, and if he died sooner, the insurance money would be available to make house payments. He is made to feel guilty for not choosing this option.

The California Medical Association, representing the state's physicians, opposed the bill as creating an unethical situation for doctors whose obligation is to heal, not kill patients. By contrast,  the California Association of Physicians, who work for huge HMOs such as Kaiser Permanente, supported it as a way to reduce HMO costs to care for the fragile elderly.

The Oregon law, on which the Vermont and California bills were based, is deeply flawed:

1. There is no way to know how many people are helped to die, because physicians are not required to report giving killer prescriptions. It is voluntary.

2. When a similar proposal was being considered by the British House of Lords, a committee led by Lord McColl visited Oregon and asked how many complications there were in 200+ assisted-suicide deaths, and were told "None." McColl, a surgeon, was shocked.

"If any surgeon or physician had told me that he did 200 procedures without any complications, I knew that he possibly needed counseling and had no insight. We come here and are told there are no complications. There is something strange going on."

3. There are many complications. Overdoses of barbiturates often cause vomiting as a person loses consciousness. The patient then inhales the vomit. One wife was so alarmed, she called 911. Her husband was taken to the hospital where he was revived. He died weeks later. Another man was unconscious for 65 hours and then awoke.  Some family members who would inherit a lot, take a sick parent from one physician to another, seeking death prescriptions.

Oregon makes no investigations, because there are no irregularities.
 

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