Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Oregon on the euthanasia slippery slope

  • 28 June 2011

Americans love conversation and public disputation about contested moral and ethical issues. Given the Australian Greens' continuing fascination with euthanasia, I decided to visit Oregon which has had a physician assisted suicide law in place since 1997.

In 2010, 96 Oregonians asked their doctors to prescribe a deadly barbiturate which they could ingest causing their own deaths; 65 of them went ahead and did so. This mode of dying accounts for just 0.2 per cent of deaths in Oregon. In the Netherlands, euthanasia accounts for ten times that percentage of deaths, and almost a third of them occur without the patient's explicit request.

I met with representatives from Providence Health, the largest Catholic health provider in the state; Physicians for Compassion, doctors who have strong ethical objections to their colleagues prescribing deadly medications; medical personnel from the Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU), the institution through which most of the suicide procedures are instituted; and with Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion and Choices, the principal national advocacy group espousing 'physician assisted death'.

Coombs Lee eschews use of the word 'suicide', suggesting that it implies that the terminally ill are mentally ill. She insists, 'Assisted suicide, committed by a physician or anyone else, remains a felony in Oregon. If a physician aided or abetted the suicide of her mentally ill patient, she would and should be prosecuted.'

When seeking my meeting with Ms Coombs Lee, I wrote:

I am an Australian lawyer and Jesuit priest. I serve on the national board of St Vincent's Health Care, one of the major health providers in Australia. I am attending the Catholic health conference in Atlanta in early June. On my way home, I will take the opportunity to come to Portland to check out your physician assisted suicide law. I am keen to hear a variety of perspectives on the workings of the Oregon law. Is there any chance I could meet with you?

She replied:

I'm grateful for your curiosity, but would not anticipate your learning anything to impact your Catholic perspective on aid in dying. Our view is Catholic providers should not obstruct a patient's request for aid in dying (distinguished from suicide) and should facilitate referral to cooperating physicians in appropriate cases. The states of Oregon and Washington publish yearly reports and these are available on the States' websites. They would be good general data sources. Our website also has a large body of