Cancer Doctor Says Oregon Law Not Followed on Assisted Suicides

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Mar 15, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Cancer Doctor Says Oregon Law Not Followed on Assisted Suicides

by Steven Ertelt Editor
March 15, 2004

Salem, OR ( — After a new report showed that assisted suicides in Oregon are on the rise, one cancer doctor says he is worried doctors aren’t following a law that says patients must be terminally ill before they can be prescribed drugs to use to end their lives.

According to a report from the state, 42 people killed themselves last year, a 10 percent increase from the 38 that obtained help in ending their lives in 2002.

Dr. Kenneth Stevens, a Portland cancer doctor and the president of Physicians for Compassionate Care, said the report documented that non-terminal patients are receiving prescriptions for lethal drugs.

Two patients who received prescriptions for lethal drugs in 2001 did not use them and were alive a year later. In the most recent report, one of the two patients died — meaning the other is still alive more than two years after the request for suicide drugs was granted.

That second patient is not mentioned in the most recent state report, Stevens says.

"Both of these patients obviously were not terminal when they received the prescription. This is a clear violation of the state law," Stevens, who is the chairman of the radiation oncology department at Oregon Health & Science University, says.

Stevens is also concerned that the physicians prescribing the lethal drugs are not more involved with the patients receiving them. The prescribing doctor was present in only 29% of the cases when the drug was used.

"As such, we really don’t know how these patients are dying. What is purported to have happened is obtained second- or even third-hand," Stevens explains.

According to the Oregon health department, the number of prescriptions written for lethal medication increased from 58 in 2002 to 67 in 2003. These numbers have increased every year since 1998, when 24 prescriptions were written.

The report says patients who chose to end their lives did so because they feared losing their autonomy, but Stevens says depression causes such feelings and is the overriding factor in prompting patients to seriously consider ending their lives.

Yet, such patients are not given the help they need to overcome it.

"Depression is the most common condition leading to suicide. It is a shame that only 5% of assisted suicide patients were referred for psychological evaluation," Dr. Stevens said.

"Depressed Oregonians are being over-dosed," says Portland psychiatrist, Greg Hamilton.

Hamilton says patients with depression at the end of life deserve good mental health treatment — not assisted suicide.

"The incomplete disclosure regarding assisted suicide in Oregon is alarming. Oregonians should demand that an independent expert panel be given access to what limited and incomplete data is available to discover what is really happening with assisted suicide in Oregon," Stevens concludes.

Related web sites:
Oregon report on assisted suicide –
Physicians for Compassionate Care –