Monday, January 28, 2013

Physician-assisted suicide runs risk of invisible coercion

Ben Mattlin writes in The New York Times on Oct. 31, 2012, that he counts himself as a pro-choice liberal who ought to support physician-assisted suicide, but as a lifelong disabled person, he cannot.

Physician-assisted suicide is a person swallowing a lethal drug prescribed by a doctor. With plenty of room for abuse, Mattlin says, it’s a bad idea.

In Montana, the issue of physician-assisted suicide has been kicked around in the Legislature and in the courts, including the Montana Supreme Court, resulting in a mixed message that needs clarity. This Legislature will try again.

Here’s Mattlin: “My problem, ultimately, is this: I’ve lived so close to death for so long that I know how thin and porous the border between coercion and free choice is, how easy it is for someone to inadvertently influence you to feel devalued and hopeless — to pressure you ever so slightly but decidedly into being ‘reasonable’ to unburdening others, to ‘letting go.’”

He goes on to say that, while the push for physician-assisted suicide comes from many who have seen a loved one suffer, supporters of it can’t truly conceive of the many “subtle forces — invariably well-meaning, kindhearted, even gentle, yet as persuasive as a tsunami — that emerge when your physical autonomy is hopelessly compromised.”

Mattlin was born with spinal muscular atrophy. He has never walked, stood, or had much use of his hands. Half of babies with this condition die within two years. Today, Mattlin, almost 50, is a husband, father, journalist and author.

When a hospital blunder compromised his heath further, doctors questioned whether his life was worth saving. Mattlin writes, “They didn’t know about my family, my career, my aspirations.” His wife rescued him.

From this he learned how easy it is to be perceived as someone whose quality of life is untenable and how this becomes one of many invisible forces of coercion. Others include, “that certain look of exhaustion in a loved one’s eyes, or the way nurses or friends sigh in your presence while you are zoned out in a hospital bed.”

Mattlin writes that this can cast a dangerous cloud of depression upon even the most cheery of optimists. He says, “advocates of Death with Dignity laws who say that patients themselves should decide whether to live or die are fantasizing. We are inexorably affected by our immediate environment. The deck is stacked.”

Cort Freeman
2950 Bayard St.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Assisted suicide would exacerbate problem of elder abuse in Montana

For over 20 years, I have been an internal medicine physician with a high percentage of older patients. I have had the painful misfortune of personally observing countless instances of elder abuse.

Elder abuse is horrific and on the rise. Perpetrators of the abuse include hired caregivers, neighbors and family members. In my experience, the motive is usually financial gain. This was true in the case of one of my patients, where a much younger man obtained financial control (became payee for Social Security and retirement benefits) by taking advantage of an elderly woman’s loneliness and dementia. He feigned romantic interest in her, flattering her to the point that she took his side against her family members. She became isolated and totally dependent on him. After many months, Adult Protective Services was able to provide a guardian. This same motive of greed could lead to coerced assisted suicide if there was anticipated financial gain, and death could occur quickly if assisted suicide was legal – before protection could be put in place.

In Oregon and Washington, where assisted suicide is legal, portions of those states’ statutes lend themselves to elder abuse, such as the fact that no witness is required at the time of death. An elderly patient of mine recently died peacefully and of natural causes in his home, surrounded by family. His daughter was devastated when a family member visiting from Oregon asked if they had given him pills to end his life, as they would have done in her state.

Elder abuse is already a huge problem in Montana. I hope Montana’s legislators will have the courage to stop legalization of assisted suicide here and thereby protect the elderly and disabled.

For more information, including a summary of this important issue, see

Annie Bukacek,

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Oregon doctor could not save patient from assisted suicide

I am a doctor in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal. A few years ago, I was caring for a 76-year-old man who presented to my office a sore on his arm, eventually diagnosed as melanoma. I referred him to specialists for evaluation and therapy.

I had known this patient and his wife for more than a decade. He was an avid hiker, a popular hobby here in Oregon. As his disease progressed, he was less able to do this activity, becoming depressed, which was documented in his chart.

During this time, my patient expressed a wish for assisted suicide to one of the specialists. Rather than take the time to address his depression, or ask me as his primary care physician to talk with him, she called me and asked me to be the “second opinion” for his suicide. She told me that barbiturate overdoses “work very well” for patients like this, and that she had done this many times before.

I told her that assisted suicide was not appropriate for this patient and that I did not concur. I was very concerned about my patient’s mental state, and told her that addressing his underlying issues would be better than simply giving him a lethal prescription. Unfortunately, my concerns were ignored, and two weeks later my depressed patient was dead from an overdose prescribed by this doctor.

Under Oregon’s law, I was not able to protect my depressed patient. If assisted suicide becomes legal in Montana, you may not be able to protect your friends or family members.

I urge you to contact your legislators to tell them to keep assisted suicide out of Montana. Don’t make Oregon’s mistake.

Dr. Charles J. Bentz
Portland, Ore.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Oregon Assisted Suicide Law is Not Safe According to Lawyer

I am a lawyer in Oregon who specializes in injury claims including wrongful death cases. I understand that Montana will be considering assisted suicide legislation this session. I write to inform your readers that Oregon’s assisted suicide law lacks transparency. Even law enforcement is denied access to information collected by the State. Moreover, this is official state policy.

In 2010, I was retained by a client whose father had died under our assisted-suicide act. Unlike other deaths I have investigated, it was difficult to get basic information.

After I wrote the state epidemiologist, I received a letter from the Attorney General’s Office that the agency charged with collecting assisted-suicide data, the Oregon Health Authority, “may only make public annual statistical information.” The letter also referred me to the Oregon Medical Board and law enforcement.

The Board wrote me that there could be no investigation without an allegation of misconduct against a physician. At my request, a police officer was assigned to the case. Per his confidential report, the Oregon Health Authority would neither confirm nor deny that my client’s father had died under our act. Per the report, the officer did, however, talk to the doctor signing the death certificate who said that he did not know that the death had involved assisted-suicide. The death certificate listed the immediate cause of death as “cancer” and the manner of death as “natural.”

Per the report, the officer also spoke with potential perpetrators who assured him that the death had been voluntary. He closed the case.

This is a link to Oregon’s data release policy as of Jan. 1, that it “will not confirm on a case-by-case basis whether an individual has used, or a provider has been involved, with Death with Dignity.”

Without transparency our law is not safe.

Isaac Jackson
Box 41240
Eugene, Ore.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

“Dr. Stevens, you saved my life!”

I am a doctor in Oregon, one of two states where assisted-suicide is legal. This letter responds to your article about the controversy over this practice in Montana. (AP article, Medical Examiners Board, Nov. 16, 2012). I write to clarify that legalizing assisted suicide would allow non-dying persons to be steered to suicide.
Oregon’s assisted-suicide law applies to patients predicted to have less than six months to live. In 2000, I had a cancer patient named Jeanette Hall. Another doctor had given her a terminal diagnosis of six months to a year to live. This was based on her not being treated for cancer.

At our first meeting, Jeanette told me that she did not want to be treated, and that she wanted to opt for what our law allowed – to kill herself with a lethal dose of barbiturates.

I did not and do not believe in assisted suicide. I informed her that her cancer was treatable and that her prospects were good. But she wanted “the pills.” She had made up her mind, but she continued to see me.
On the third or fourth visit, I asked her about her family and learned that she had a son. I asked her how he would feel if she went through with her plan. Shortly after that, she agreed to be treated, and her cancer was cured.

Five years later she saw me in a restaurant and said, “Dr. Stevens, you saved my life!”

For her, the mere presence of legal assisted suicide had steered her to suicide.

I understand that assisted suicide will be an issue in your upcoming legislative session. I urge you to encourage your legislators to clarify your law to keep assisted suicide out of Montana.

Kenneth Stevens, MD
Sherwood, Ore.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Oregon Doctor's Letter to Medical Society

I practice internal medicine in Oregon where assisted suicide is legal.  I write to urge you to maintain your policy against physician-assisted suicide and have attached a copy of this letter to this e-mail.  Contrary to marketing rhetoric by suicide advocates, the safeguards do not protect patients.  Please consider my patient’s story below.

I was caring for a 76 year-old man who presented to my office with a sore on his arm, eventually diagnosed as metastatic malignant melanoma.  I referred him to both medical and radiation oncology for evaluation and therapy. I had known this patient and his wife for over a decade. He was an avid hiker, a popular hobby here in Oregon, and as his disease progressed, he was less able to do this, becoming depressed, which was documented in his chart.
My patient expressed a wish for doctor-assisted suicide to the medical oncologist, but rather than take the time to address depression or ask me, as his primary care physician, to talk with him, the specialist called me and asked me to be the "second opinion" for his suicide.  I told her that assisted suicide was not appropriate for this patient, but unfortunately, my concerns were ignored, and two weeks later my depressed patient was dead from an overdose prescribed by this doctor. His death certificate listed the cause of death as melanoma.