First Known Death Under Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law Is Treated With Appropriate Caution

 By S. Van McCrary, Health Law & Policy Institute

Shortly after this author commented on a New York Times article noting that the Oregon law permitting assisted suicide had not been used, the first known case of legal assisted suicide in that State was announced. The advocacy group, Oregon Compassion in Dying, made public on March 25 some details of a case in which a woman, in her mid-80s with terminal breast cancer, died on March 24, 1998, after ingesting a lethal dose of barbiturates and alcohol.

The unnamed woman made an audio tape in which she said she had been given less than two months to live by her doctors and was tired of fighting the cancer. She also reported that she was "looking forward" to her suicide as a relief (New York Times, Mar. 26). The advocacy group reported that the woman died at home surrounded by her family, about one-half hour after taking the drugs, and that there were no complications associated with her death.

The Oregon law permitting assisted suicide had been delayed in the courts for three years and was overwhelmingly reaffirmed just last fall by voters. Opponents of the Oregon law, led by the Roman Catholic Church, expressed concern and sadness at the news of the woman's death, but state officials had no comment. Oregon officials have said that they will not release an official report on the law's use until at least 10 deaths have occurred under its provisions. However, it appears that previous predictions about Oregon becoming a mecca for people wanting to end their lives have yet failed to materialize.

Few additional facts and analysis have been published in either the print or electronic media about this event, probably due to the restrained amount of information released by the advocacy group and the State's position to refrain from publicizing the practice until a significant number of incidents have been recorded and assessed. This caution is appropriate under the circumstances. The contentious arguments surrounding legalization of assisted suicide have sharply divided citizens, policy makers, and health care providers, and have threatened to break down the possibility of reasonable public debate. The complex and volatile issues surrounding the legalization of this practice should be treated with utmost circumspection until more facts emerge.