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On March 10, 2005, the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) released its annual report on Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide (PAS) law, the Oregon Death with Dignity Act (DWDA), which took effect in 1997.

As was the case with all previous reports, this latest “Seventh Annual Report” covers only the assisted-suicide deaths that were reported to the state. The ODHS acknowledges that the data used “do not include patients and physicians who may act outside the provisions of the DWDA.”

[“Seventh Annual Report on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act,” 3/10/05, p. 16; hereafter cited as PAS Report]

The ODHS’s data is obtained from physician and pharmacy reports, physician interviews and death certificates. The patients are never interviewed prior to death. [PAS Report, p. 10]

In 2004, a total of 37 patients reportedly ingested prescribed lethal drugs and died under Oregon’s PAS law. Forty (40) doctors wrote 60 lethal doses of barbiturates. Of those who received the 60 prescriptions, 35 took the drugs and died in 2004.

Of the remaining 25 patients who did not take the drugs, 13 died naturally of their illnesses, while 12 were still alive on December 31, 2004. Two additional patients, who had been prescribed barbiturate overdoses in 2003, died in 2004—bringing the total number of reported deaths to 37. [PAS Report, p. 12]

Of the 40 lethally-prescribing doctors, 28 wrote one prescription, nine wrote two, one wrote three, one wrote four, and one wrote seven. In only six of the 37 PAS cases (16%) were the prescribing doctors present when their patients ingested the fatal drugs. Moreover, these doctors—mostly family practitioners, oncologists, and internists, not psychiatrists—referred only two (5%) of the 37 patients requesting death for psychological evaluations. [PAS Report, pp. 13-14]

Regarding this low number of referrals, assisted-suicide activist Dr. Peter Rasmussen—an Oregon oncologist who won’t be specific about how many lethal prescriptions he’s written—commented, “…I would say that most oncologists and people who spend a lot of time with the terminally ill are getting good at picking up clinical depression.”

He admitted, however, that he saw 75% of his assisted-suicide patients for the first time and that he takes only about three hours with each patient—either in person or over the phone—before he writes the fatal prescription. “I think all involved in the Oregon law,” he said, “must recognize that we are on a slippery slope, and we have to be careful with every step.” [American Medical News, 4/4/05]