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February 17, 2005 | Print-friendly version

Oregonian and oncologist Kenneth Stevens travels the country urging state lawmakers to vote "No" on physician-assisted suicide even as the body count under Oregon’s law nears two hundred people.

"When a doctor writes a prescription for lethal drugs for assisted suicide, the message to the patient is: ‘I don’t value you or your life.’ It destroys the trust between doctor and patient," said Stevens, vice president of Physicians for Compassionate Care Educational Foundation, formed after Oregon voters approved assisted suicide in a 1994 referendum that took effect in 1997.

In February, Stevens testified in California and in Hawaii. In Hawaii, at the end of a public hearing, the legislative committee tabled the bill, killing it. Legislation is also before Vermont and Arizona state legislatures.

Stevens speaks about assisted suicide as a doctor who treats cancer but he also speaks as a man whose wife died of cancer and who in her last days was offered a lethal prescription by her physician. Married for eighteen years with six children, Stevens’ wife suffered for three years with advancing malignant lymphoma.

"In May 1982, we met again with her physician to see what could be done for her. It was evident not much more could be done than comfort care. As we were about to leave his office, her physician said, ‘Well, I could write a prescription for an ‘extra large’ amount of pain medication for you.’ He did not say it was for her to hasten her death, but she and I both felt his intended message," Stevens recalled in his testimony this February before the California legislative committees.

"As I helped her to our car, she said, "He wants me to kill myself! She and I were both devastated. How could her physician, her trusted physician, subtly suggest to her that she take her own life? We had felt much discouragement during the prior three years, but not the deep despair that we felt at that time when her physician subtly suggested that her suicide be considered. Six days later she died naturally, with dignity and at ease in her bed, without the suggested medication," Stevens said.

That subtle pressure toward suicide, and not so subtle pressure, may well be going on within Oregon, Stevens and others say. However, because the law has no oversight or enforcement it is clothed in secrecy.

The state reports 171 people have died between 1998-2003 under the law. Pro-suicide Compassion in Dying Federation reported in an Internet memo that another 35 died in 2004 and that 29 of those were clients of the suicide advocacy group. The state of Oregon has not released any data for 2004, Stevens testified before the California legislative committee on February 4th in Sacramento.

"How did CID know there were six deaths of non-CID clients?" asked the Physicians for Compassionate Care official. "One can only conclude that there is active and secret information-sharing between the CID and the Oregon Department of Human Services in the reporting process… The wall of secrecy around assisted suicide in Oregon continues unabated."

Reports that have made the newspapers are disturbing, said Wesley J. Smith, consultant to the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. Referring in particular to reporting by the Portland Oregonian, Smith said in one case, a woman’s own doctor refused to provide assisted suicide, and so did a second doctor. So she want to a suicide advocacy group which referred her to a doctor willing to write a prescription and died two weeks later, he said. In another case reported in the Oregonian, a woman with Alzheimer's and cancer received assisted suicide despite two mental health professionals stating that there were family pressures, Smith said.

Suicide advocate Compassion in Dying Federation was involved in 79 percent of the assisted suicides in Oregon the first year after the law took effect, reported Physicians for Compassionate Care. In 2003, only 5 percent of the 42 Oregonians dying under the law received psychiatric/psychological examination.

Assisted suicide is provided by most Oregon HMOs and also by Oregon Medicaid. Kaiser Permanente/Northwest actively solicited doctors willing to administer assisted suicide because it couldn’t find enough, Smith reported in a January 19, 2002 column in National Review Online. " When liberals ask me why they should oppose physician-assisted suicide (PAS), I always reply, "I can summarize a big reason in just three letters: HMO," Smith wrote.

"If assisted suicide ever becomes widely legitimized and legalized, Wall Street investors in HMOs will be dancing in the streets," Smith told IgnatiusInsight.com.

In the spring of 2003, Oregon Medicaid stopped paying for about 10,000, including people who had AIDS, were waiting for bone marrow transplants, were mentally ill who needed some anti-psychotic drugs, and those who needed anti-seizure medications, Stevens said. It still pays for assisted suicide, which costs about $50 per lethal prescription, he said.

"Assisted suicide is cheaper than caring for the vulnerably poor and that should concern people who care about other people," Stevens told IgnatiusInsight.com. "One of the things that really drives the push for assisted suicide are people who want control of their lives and who want this choice. What they may find is this may become their only choice because of the cutback in medical care."

Valerie Schmalz is a writer for IgnatiusInsight. She worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, and in print and broadcast media for ten years. She holds a BA in Government from University of San Francisco and a Master of Science from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the former director of Birthright of San Francisco. Valerie and her wonderful husband have four children.

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