Oregon's Assisted-Dying Law: Seldom Used -- No Complications, Again

Oregon's assisted dying law finished its third year of helping countless Oregonians receive better end-of-life care and die better deaths. And it once again proved its critics wrong on every count.

There is no rush to use the law -- only 27 terminally ill Oregonians took medication to end a protracted dying process, the same number as last year.

There were no complications -- all patients slipped into a coma within minutes and died in peace. Most were surrounded by family; many had their family doctor present.

The poor and uninsured are not at risk -- all patients had insurance, most were receiving hospice care, most had at least some college education.

Compassion in Dying of Oregon again guided most of those availing themselves of an assisted death. Twenty-one of the 27 terminally ill people who chose to hasten their deaths did so under Compassion in Dying of Oregon's (CID-OR) stewardship.

The following statistics are culled from Compassion in Dying of Oregon patient files. They do not represent all Oregonians who hastened their deaths. Visit www.ohd.hr.state.or.us/chs/pas/pas.htm for the full report from the Oregon Department of Human Services.

CID-OR statistics are little changed from last year. All 21 CID-OR patients had health insurance, and 17 were receiving hospice care. Ten were males, 11 were females. For the third year in a row, loss of autonomy topped the reasons people gave for using Oregon's law, cited by all 21 patients. Fear of loss of control was also listed by nearly all patients. All 21 had a long held belief in assisted dying. All were Caucasian.

Seventeen CID-OR patients suffered from cancer, once again making it the dominant disease of those using the law. Two of the 21 had heart disease, one had ALS and one had lung disease. Nineteen different physicians prescribed the medication. There were no complications in taking the medications.

"The law's use is modest, as we predicted all along," said George Eighmey, Compassion in Dying of Oregon executive director. "We received nearly 100 calls for information and assistance in 2000. Fewer than 25 percent of those people chose a hastened death, but all were comforted by knowing the option existed," he said.

As a client service organization, Compassion in Dying of Oregon is able to track information not contained in the Oregon Health Department (OHD) report. The following information is NOT contained in the OHD report in any way.

In 2000, 68 qualified Compassion of Oregon clients, who later died, requested access to Oregon's assisted dying law. Of the 47 not reported on above, 33 died of their underlying disease, six stopped eating and drinking, five were terminally sedated and three died after requiring high doses of pain medication that probably hastened the time of their deaths.

Additionally, 12 of the 68 had planned a suicide by violent means. All changed their minds after speaking with Compassion in Dying. Only four of the 12 eventually hastened their deaths.

"The option of a dignified, hastened death gives terminally ill people the hope and comfort to carry on," said Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion in Dying Federation. "Many more people request access to Oregon's law than actually use it. That important part of the law's history hasn't been told. It helps far more people than those who ultimately hasten their deaths."