LETTER: System that’s open to abuse

Steve Parlanti accuses opponents of the Assisted Dying Bill [to be debated in Parliament today, Friday] of being uncaring and ignorant of loved ones dying. This is unfair and untrue. There can hardly be an adult who has not experienced personal loss – often in difficult circumstances. Our opposition is based on serious and reasonable concerns.

Allow me to explore one such area: the workings of the Law in Oregon, USA, presented as a perfect template for this country to copy.

Mr Parlanti claims that the Assisted Dying Law in Oregon has not led to any abuse. Oregon has a small population of about four million and has legalised assisted dying/suicide since 1997. It lays down certain conditions: the patient must be suffering from a terminal illness, have less than six months to live, must self-administer the fatal drug prescribed by a doctor and must be mentally competent – depression makes anyone ineligible for assisted death.

In practice most assisted deaths are facilitated by doctors belonging to a group called ‘Compassion and Choices’ – previously named The Hemlock Society. Over the years there have been cases of patients deemed ineligible by their usual doctors for not meeting the legal criteria – who then go to ‘Compassion and Choices’ and are prescribed the fatal dose. In 2009, 57 out of 59 cases in Oregon were helped on their way by ‘Compassion and Choices’.

Official statistics from the Oregon Health Authorities show that between 2011-14 each year only 3 per cent or fewer patients requesting assisted dying were referred for psychiatric evaluation or counselling. In 2008 the official report concluded: “… the current practice of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act may fail to protect some patients whose choices are influenced by depression …”

Another such report claims that 40 per cent of those who apply for an assisted death “do not want to be a burden” on their families. Could this be a sign of depression or vulnerability?

A patient in Oregon is meant to self-administer the fatal dose but there have been cases of nurses taking on this role. In one case two nurses broke the law in this way and yet – according to the Portland Tribune of July 10 2007 – escaped prosecution.

The Oregon Law does not require a doctor to be present – indeed in only around 50 per cent of cases is a “medical practitioner” present. Who is there to intervene if complications occur? One patient, David Prueitt, in 2005, took his drug surrounded by his family and was unconscious for 65 hours. Then he woke up!

Kathryn Judson took her seriously-ill husband to the family doctor who tried to talk her husband into assisted death. She quotes the doctor as saying: “Think of what it will spare your wife, we need to think of her.”

Finally, Jeanette Hall of Oregon was diagnosed with cancer in 2000 and given six-12 months to live. She asked her doctor about assisted dying. Her doctor encouraged her not to give up and she decided to fight the disease. She underwent a course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Eleven years later she wrote a letter to the Boston Globe on October 4 2011: “I am so happy to be alive! If my doctor had believed in assisted suicide I would be dead … Assisted suicide should not be legal.”

All of the above abuses of the Oregon Law can be found on the internet: abuses of patients shopping around to find a doctor willing to turn a blind eye to the letter of the law; to patients with depression being denied proper treatment; to breaches of the self-administration rule – and nurses breaking the law escaping prosecution; and doctors encouraging assisted suicide.

If the Assisted Dying Bill being debated by our Parliament is based on the Oregon Law let us be clear: Oregon is no paragon of virtue!

John de Waal

Ratton Road

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