Oregon’s assisted suicide law blamed on poor care

The fact that a US state with inadequate end-of-life care and low patient trust allows assisted suicide is no basis for changing the UK law, a doctor has warned.

Since 1997 physician assisted suicide (PAS) has been legal in Oregon for terminally ill patients. Assisted suicide lobbyists have called for a similar system to be adopted in the UK.

But palliative care specialist Dr David Jeffrey says the law there is seen as a “safety net” by “a society which has little trust in its doctors’ ability to provide effective end-of-life care”.

Many patients in Oregon are excluded from the kinds of palliative treatment available in the UK, argues Dr Jeffrey in an article featured in this month’s issue of Evangelicals Now.

A recent attempt to change the assisted suicide law in the UK was defeated in the House of Lords amid warnings from disability campaigners and medical experts.

Dr Jeffrey says many patients requesting assisted suicide in Oregon do so not because they are in pain but because they fear losing control.

“These patients have had a marked need for control throughout their lives, and cannot bear having to depend on others, so palliative care has no appeal for them”, he explains.

“Control and choice are the key words in the promotion of PAS in Oregon.”

Dr Jeffrey also points out that in the years since assisted suicide was legalised in Oregon, the number of patients referred for psychiatric assessment after requesting assisted suicide has fallen significantly.

There are also fears that patients are ‘shopping’ for doctors who will agree to prescribe them with lethal drugs.

“The majority of patients who receive lethal prescriptions obtain them from a doctor who cannot have a detailed knowledge of their mental and emotional state”, Dr Jeffrey warns.

He concludes: “The Oregon experience cannot be claimed to be a valid basis for any change in existing law in the UK.

“There is a need to devise ways of helping the tiny group of patients who have a highly developed need for control, without putting large numbers of vulnerable patients at risk.

“Patient choice cannot be unlimited without a consideration of its effect on others.”

Dr Jeffrey’s comments were reproduced by Evangelicals Now from his book, Against Physician Assisted Suicide: a palliative care perspective.

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