Euthanasia enthusiast, Dr. Marcia Angell, the former executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, has a gripe with Oregon’s law that legalized physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. The law may be “too restrictive,” she recently told the New York Times. “I am concerned that so few people are requesting it.”
Just what we need; more rather than fewer suicides. As for Oregon’s law being too restrictive, it is filled with loopholes so big you could drive a hearse through any one of them.
But what about the protective guidelines we hear so much about? They are wisps of smoke blown away in the breeze. The actual implementation of assisted suicide in Oregon is buried in deepest secrecy. The state never knows when an assisted suicide is pending. It only receives statistical information after the fact, and then only from the lethally prescribing physicians. Nor is there any independent verification attempted by the state to ensure that the data provided by the death doctors is actually true.
There is not even a requirement that the prescribing doctor also have been the treating physician. Indeed, statistics collected in the first few years of legal assisted suicide revealed several cases in which the suicidal patient’s treating doctor refused to lethally prescribe. We don’t know what prompted these refusals because the Oregon Health Department (OHD) was so uncurious about the matter that state bureaucrats never bothered to contact any of these doctors to find out why. Tellingly, when this fact was commented upon publicly, the OHD’s response was not to search out the information, but rather to quit collecting data about doctors refusing to prescribe.
Such secrecy has a purpose: It prevents the public from perceiving assisted suicide as the medical abandonment that it really is. Still, here and there, the truth has leaked out, most recently in a case study presented last month to the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
The Michael Freeland case is the only potential assisted suicide discussed in public in which the patient’s actual medical records were reviewed. Freeland was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000. In early 2001, an assisted suicide advocacy group referred him to Dr. Peter Reagan, a committed euthanasia ideologue. Reagan promptly wrote Freeland a lethal prescription.
Oregon law requires the patient to be reasonably expected to die within six months before receiving a lethal prescription. But Freeland’s natural death occurred nearly two years after Reagan wrote the lethal prescription. Yet, even though it appears Dr. Reagan may have violated Oregon law when he issued the poison script, there has apparently been no inquiry into the matter by the OHD.
But that is not the worst of it. Patients receiving assisted suicide are supposed to be mentally capable. Yet, on January 23, 2002, Freeland was admitted to Providence Portland Medical Center for depression with suicidal and possibly homicidal thoughts. A social worker went to Freeland’s home and found it “uninhabitable” due to “heaps of clutter, rodent feces, ashes extending two feet from the fireplace in to the living room, lack of food, heat, etc. Thirty-two firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition were removed by the police.” Amazingly, the “lethal medications” that had been prescribed more than a year before were left in the house for his use!
Freeland was hospitalized for a week and then discharged on January 30. The discharging psychiatrist noted with approval that the guns had been removed, “which resolves the major safety issue,” but wrote that Freeland’s lethal prescription remained “safely at home.” And get this: Freeland was permitted to keep the overdose even though the psychiatrist reported he would “remain vulnerable to periods of delirium.” Moreover, the day after his discharge, the psychiatrist wrote a letter to the court in support of establishing a guardianship for Freeland, writing, “he is susceptible to periods of confusion and impaired judgment.” During this entire time, nobody even attempted to remove his lethal drugs.
Happily for Freeland, he had called Physicians for Compassionate Care, a medical organization opposed to assisted suicide and dedicated to helping dying people receive proper care. Freeland was properly treated for depression with medication. He received proper pain control, including a morphine pump. Best of all, he was reunited with his estranged daughter and died knowing she loved him and would cherish his memory.
That was true death with dignity, which is probably why you did not hear much about Freeland’s case in the media. We have entered a killing season in which assisted suicide is almost always depicted as enlightened, noble, and compassionate. Facts that show otherwise just get in the way.
Author Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the CBC.
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