Who Is At Risk?

Who is at Risk Under the Oregon
& Washington Assisted Suicide Laws?

By Margaret Dore, as of May 17, 2011.

Print version here.

Legal physician-assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington puts the following people at risk: (1) Older people; (2) people with serious health conditions; (3) the "Barbara Wagners"; (4) people with disabilities; (5) people with chronic conditions; and (6) depressed and/or suicidal people.  See below. 

1.  Older People

The majority of people reportedly dying under the Oregon and Washington assisted suicide laws are age 65 and older. They are also well-educated. Typically, people with these attributes would be those with money, i.e., the middle class and above. 

People in this demographic are often victims of abuse by their heirs, family members and new "best friends."  Alex Schadenberg, Chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, International, states:
With assisted suicide laws in Washington and Oregon, perpetrators can . . . take a "legal" route, by getting an elder to sign a lethal dose request.  Once the prescription is filled, there is no supervision over the administration. . . . [E]ven if a patient struggled, "who would know?"
Older people without money are also victims of abuse. The gaps in the Oregon and Washington laws put them at risk.

References:  Margaret Dore, "'Death with Dignity': A Recipe for Elder Abuse and Homicide (Albeit not by Name)," Marquette Elder's Advisor, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring 2010; Margaret Dore, "Assisted Suicide Report Lacks Information About Consent," King County Bar Association, Bar Bulletin, July 2011; Margaret Dore, Memorandum to the Senate Judiciary Committee of Montana, February 9, 2011,  (discussing Oregon and Washington); and Alex Schadenberg, Letter to the Editor, "Elder abuse a growing problem," The Advocate, the official publication of the Idaho Bar Association, October 2011.  

2.  People with Serious Health Conditions

The Oregon and Washington physician-assisted suicide laws apply to patients with a "terminal disease," which is defined as having less than six months to live. This determination does not require that the person be treated. Consider Oregon resident Jeanette Hall who was diagnosed with cancer and told that she had six months to a year to live. She states: 
I wanted to do our [assisted suicide] law and I wanted my doctor to help me. Instead, he encouraged me to not give up . . . I had both chemotherapy and radiation. . . .  It is now nearly 10 years later. If my doctor had believed in assisted suicide, I would be dead.
Doctor predictions of life expectancy can also be wrong.  Legal physician-assisted suicide encourages people, who may have years to live, to cut short their lives.

References:  Jeanette Hall, Letter to the Editor, "Second Life," Missoula Independent, June 17, 2010; Nina Shapiro, "Terminal Uncertainty," Seattle Weekly, January 14, 2009; and Kenneth Stevens, MD, Letter to the Editor, "Oregon mistake costs lives," The Advocate, the official publication of the Idaho Bar Association, September 2011. 

3.  The "Barbara Wagners"

People with serious health conditions are also at risk due to steerage by health care providers. The most well-known cases involve Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup. The Oregon Health Plan (Medicaid) refused to pay for their desired treatments and offered to pay for their suicides instead. Neither Wagner nor Stroup saw this as a celebration of their "choice."  Stroup said: "This is my life they’re playing with." Wagner said: "I’m not ready to die." 

References:  Susan Harding, "Letter noting assisted suicide raises questions," KATU TV, July 30, 2008; Susan Donaldson James, "Death Drugs Cause Uproar in Oregon," ABC News, August 6, 2008; and Kenneth Stevens, MD, "Oregon mistake costs lives," see above.

4.  People with Disabilities

People with disabilities are devalued under the Oregon and Washington physician-assisted suicide laws due to the promotion of disability as an acceptable reason to commit suicide under those lawsSee e.g., Margaret K. Dore, "Physician-Assisted Suicide: A Recipe for Elder Abuse and the Illusion of Personal Choice," The Vermont Bar Journal, Winter 2011, pp. 3-4.

People with disabilities are also at risk due to proposals to expand the application of assisted suicide laws to people with disabilities.  See e.g., Stephen Drake, "New Hampshire Poised to Redefine "Terminally Ill" to PWDs and Others for Assisted Suicide Eligibility," Not Dead Yet Blog, Jan. 30, 2009. 

5.  People with Chronic Conditions

People with chronic conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease and HIV/AIDS are at risk due to proposals to expand the application of assisted suicide laws to people with these conditions.  See e.g. Opinion letter from Dr. Richard Wonderly and attorney Theresa Schrempp to the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, October 22, 2009.

6.  Depressed and/or Suicidal People

Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law went into effect in 1997.  Since 2000, Oregon's suicide rate, which excludes suicides under Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law, has been "increasing significantly."  There is a statistical correlation between the legalization of physician-assisted suicide and other suicide.  See e.g. Margaret Dore, Memorandum to the Senate Judiciary Committee of Montana, February 9, 2011, pp. 12-13 (discussing Oregon).