Physician: Abuses of Oregon Euthanasia Law Could Occur Regularly

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

Physician: Abuses of Oregon Euthanasia Law Could Occur Regularly

by Paul Nowak Staff Writer
June 15, 2004

Montpelier, VT ( — Pro-life physicians are concerned that abuses of Oregon’s assisted suicide law could take place regularly, indicated by inconsistencies in statements from assisted suicide advocates and medical reports.

Dr. Robert Orr, president of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, told that a recent pro-assisted suicide speaker from Oregon mentioned that liquid barbiturates were being used in assisted suicides there.

Documents show 16-25 percent of patients in the Netherlands who take the dosage of pentobarbital do not die. In the Netherlands, where euthanasia is legal, the "failed suicides" can be finished by injecting more of the agent into the individual, but such follow-up is not allowed under the Oregon law.

"When Dr. Peter Rasmussen was visiting Vermont from Oregon in the spring of 2003 at the request of the local Death With Dignity group, someone asked him a question about the ‘failed suicides’ in the Netherlands," explained Dr. Orr.

"[They wanted] to know what was done if someone in Oregon didn’t die after taking the same 9 grams (90 capsules) of barbiturate. He responded that this was not a problem because the doctors had switched to a liquid form," Orr said.

However, no oral liquid form of pentobarbital is manufactured, only an injectable liquid that is used to euthanize animals. If used orally, the individual would need to drink 7 ounces of the bitter liquid, and the dosage is "likely to be vomited back because of its vile taste," according to Dr. Orr.

"We do not have any direct evidence that patients receiving prescriptions for lethal drugs under the Oregon physician-assisted suicide law are being given a lethal injection," explained Dr. Kenneth Stevens, President of Physicians for Compassionate Care in Oregon.

Stevens said the Annual Report for 2003 from the Oregon Health Division showed that 37 of the 42 deaths from assisted suicide were from pentobarbital.

Dr. Stevens added that the pentobarbital prescribed in Oregon for assisted suicide was indeed the liquid form, officially known as "pentobarbital sodium injection," and that no oral solution was available.

"We have been told by the proponents of assisted suicide that it is being taken by mouth to cause the suicide," explained Dr. Stevens. "We are concerned that once this injectable liquid is in the hands of the patient, family and others, there is no control to prevent it from being injected into the patient (euthanasia)."

Dr. Stevens added that the reporting procedures in Oregon also make abuse of asssited suicide possible.

"Information regarding what happens at the time of taking the lethal medication is self-reported by the prescribing doctors, who were only present in 29% of the patients that took lethal medication in 2003," added Dr. Stevens. "The information from the other 71% of the patients is obtained second- and third-hand from others who were there."

"There are no safeguards to prevent euthanasia in Oregon. This is further evidence of the ‘slippery slope’ from assisted suicide to euthanasia," concluded Dr. Stevens.

Dr. Stevens notes that, according to the most recent reports from Oregon, only 5 percent of patients received psychological evaluations, despite the fact that depression is the most common condition leading to suicide.

In addition, Dr. Stevens pointed out that in 2001, two patients were given lethal prescriptions but did not use them. Two years later, one patient was still alive, meaning that they had not been terminally ill as required by law.

A well-documented case of the law being violated is that of Michael Freeland.

In 2001, Freeland was given a lethal dose of medication to end his life by his doctor, although he was not terminally ill and the physician did not consider him mentally competent to make major medical decisions, due to his depression. Both mental competency and terminal illness are requirements for an assisted suicide prescription under the Oregon law.

Dr. Gregory Hamilton, an American Psychiatric Association fellow, said Freeland’s case "demonstrates that allowing assisted suicide contributes to substandard medical care and endangers seriously ill patients, particularly those with a history of pre-existing mental illness."

The Vermont legislative research office has been asked by 78 state legislators to investigate the impact of Oregon’s assisted suicide law, and research the arguments for and against the legalization of the practice in Vermont.

Assisted suicide legislation was not considered this past session, as the governor, legislative leaders, the state medical association and numerous organizations opposed the measure. Supporters have promised to raise the issue again in the next legislative session.

Related Sites:
Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare –
Oregon report on assisted suicide –
Physicians for Compassionate Care –