A Dignified Death for the Suicide Agenda?

Richard M. Doerflinger


The image of physician-assisted suicide providing a “humane and dignified death” has suffered major setbacks lately. New revelations show that the so-called “right to die” movement has misrepresented the facts and suppressed the truth to promote its agenda. As a consequence its credibility has suffered severe self-inflicted damage.

The first blow landed when the Oregon Health Division on February 23 issued its second annual report on implementation of the state’s “Death with Dignity Act.” Since Oregon’s law allowing physician-assisted suicide took effect late in 1997, this segment of the state government has had the responsibility to issue an annual statistical report on the state-sanctioned suicides reported by physicians.

State officials say there were 27 reported cases of legal physician-assisted suicide in 1999 — up from 16 in 1998. And while overdoses of powerful federally controlled substances were used in all cases, three of those patients took over eleven hours to die — with one patient taking 26 hours to die. The “quick and painless” death promised by suicide proponents has proved an illusion.

The second blow to the movement’s credibility came from a March 2000 article in Brainstorm (www.brainstormnw.com), a respected magazine of politics and culture in the Pacific Northwest. Reporter Lisa Baker discovered a “botched” assisted suicide in December that “failed” to kill the patient.

The man, whose name and illness remain unknown, lingered and suffered terribly after taking the lethal dose, leading his wife ultimately to call 911. Medical technicians saved him, and he died later of natural causes in a nursing facility. The botched suicide was completely missed by Oregon’s official reporting system but not, as it turned out, by the “right to die” leadership.

In a live radio interview February 23, Oregon “right to die” leader George Eighmey fiercely denied knowing about the case. Then his debating opponent, Catherine Hamilton of Physicians for Compassionate Care, produced a tape of Eighmey’s own voice discussing the case at a Portland Community College seminar on assisted suicide held in December 1999.

Hamilton elaborated in a first-person account given to Brainstorm. She talked of how she heard of the case at this seminar–and how Eighmey tried to get her to keep the case secret, claiming the seminar was “confidential.” It turns out that suicide advocacy groups in Oregon knew of the case but did not want the public to know about it.

Commenting on this case in a March 23 editorial, David Reinhard of the Portland Oregonian observed that “assisted suicide-backers in Oregon … refuse to admit that there can be problems with the state’s assisted-suicide regime — victims and their family members be [expletive].”

The third and most deadly blow against the facade of “humane and dignified death” came from the February 24 edition of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. There, Dutch experts revealed that 18% of physician-assisted suicides in that country produce “complications” such as nausea and vomiting or fail to work as expected, prompting doctors to kill their patients more directly by lethal injection. (Such direct killing by physicians is not allowed by the Oregon law.)

An accompanying editorial by Dr. Sherwin Nuland, American author of the bestseller How We Die, noted that this figure may be only the tip of the iceberg: 10% of Dutch physicians refused to discuss their cases in the survey, and the cases left unreported are likely to be the ones in which “patients experienced the worst complications.”

Dr. Nuland observed, “This is information that will come as a shock to the many members of the public — including legislators and even some physicians who have never considered that the procedures involved in physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia might sometimes add to the suffering they are meant to alleviate and might also preclude the tranquil death being sought.”

The Dutch data have a broader significance, besides showing that “quick and easy” assisted suicide is not what it is cracked up to be.

Those data were available in a Dutch-language manuscript in 1997. In that year, pro-life Oregonians trying to repeal the Oregon Death with Dignity Act by state-wide referendum commissioned an English translation of these preliminary data, and used the findings to argue that the Oregon law would lead to lingering and inhumane deaths. But Oregon television stations, including all three major network affiliates, refused to air the ads using this information, calling them “misleading” (Oregonian, Oct. 8, 1997).

Suicide advocates responded by airing their own TV ads saying that “politicians and the Catholic Church” were trying to mislead the public. “The truth is, you could look forever and you won’t find that [Dutch] study — because it doesn’t exist,” said the right-to-die ad. “It’s simply not true” (Oregonian, Oct. 15, 1997). Oregonians believed the latter ad, and voted to keep the assisted suicide law.

But the study did exist, and it is now clear which side had its facts straight. The Oregon law is based on misinformation — and the people of Oregon are paying for it with their lives.

In light of the data on inhumane deaths by suicide, Dr. Nuland noted that two paths now lie before our society. We must turn away from the assisted suicide agenda — or we must provide “thorough training in techniques” for killing patients, “with the attention to detail that all aspects of medical practice demand.”

Nuland favors the latter, and we can easily see where this leads: Doctors standing ready with syringes to finish off patients whose suicides begin to go “bad”; medical schools and residency programs feeling pressure to train doctors in how to kill their patients most efficiently (a pressure many of them have tragically not felt when it comes to training doctors in better pain control); Catholic medical schools being chided by accreditation agencies for falling below the “standard of care” because they don’t teach killing methods.

As the U.S. Senate prepares to debate the Pain Relief Promotion Act, which would clarify the law to prevent use of federally regulated drugs for assisted suicide, it must choose one path or the other. Is assisted suicide part of “medical practice”? If it is, the federal government will no doubt be drawn into efforts to make sure it is done “right” — so no patient gets away alive.

The other issue raised by these new revelations is the credibility of a “right to die” movement that has misrepresented the facts and suppressed the truth to promote its agenda. As that movement declared in its own 1997 ad on the Dutch data, “any campaign not based on the truth is fundamentally and fatally flawed.”

By that standard, the campaign for government approval of assisted suicide has a lot of explaining to do.

Mr. Doerflinger is associate director for policy development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.


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