From 1997 to 2002, 129 patients died as a result of taking end-of-life prescription medications, accounting for less than one in every 1,000 deaths in Oregon. According to the Oregon Department of Human Services, 58 patients received lethal prescriptions, but only 36 died as a result of using them in 2002. Another 16 died of their illnesses, and six remained alive at the end of the year.
From 1998 to 2002, the participating patients' mean age was 69; 97% percent were white, 55% were male, and 38% had a bachelor's degree or higher. Forty-seven percent were married, 22% were widowed and 25% were divorced. Two patients were between the ages of 25 and 34, and three were between 35 and 44.
"The patients who ended their lives this way were in general very assertive, independent, determined, persuasive people who put a great deal of effort into determining how they were going to die," said Ganzini. "The ambivalent are left behind, because they don't have energy to fight."
Cancer was the most common disease, affecting 79% of the patients who requested physician-assisted suicide. Other illnesses included amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (8%) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (6%).
Medical specialties of physicians writing prescriptions included oncology (45%), internal medicine (29%) and family medicine (24%). Five percent of physicians writing prescriptions noted "other" as their specialty.
Whether or not patients in Oregon will continue to be able to request physician-assisted suicide, they will continue to choose to end their lives, Baron stated. "No matter what we doctors think, people will take the matter into their own hands. That's an extra-legal determination that people make. If somebody wants to die, all they have to do is refuse to eat or drink. In two or three weeks, more or less, they'll be dead. You can't maintain them forever with just an IV.
"Sometimes, as a physician, you have to curb your therapeutic ambition. If you prolong a life of misery, the patient doesn't thank you. If there's good hope that a quality life can be achieved, that's different, and people do make mistakes about that." (Please see p37 for one opinion on this issue--Ed.)