The Magazine

The Oregon Tall Tale

The creepy underside of legal assisted suicide.

May 17, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 34 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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A PAPER PRESENTED at last week's American Psychiatric Association meeting demonstrates once again that the legalization of physician-assisted suicide in Oregon was one of the great public policy con jobs of all time. Earnest euthanasia advocates--generally abetted by a compliant media--spun the myth that assisted suicide would invariably be a rational "choice," strictly regulated by the state, a last resort of dying patients when nothing else could be done to alleviate their suffering. But the more we learn about how doctor-facilitated death is actually being practiced in Oregon, the clearer it becomes that these assurances were false.

Getting access to this information isn't easy. Assisted suicide in Oregon is shielded from meaningful public scrutiny by a shroud of state-imposed secrecy. As a consequence, little is publicly known about the people who have died by swallowing massive overdoses of toxic drugs prescribed by doctors. Indeed, the assisted suicide law was written and later interpreted by state regulators to ensure that the Oregon Health Department is powerless to control the practice of assisted suicide before patients die.

What little oversight the department imposes consists primarily of collecting and publishing data received after the fact. And almost all of the information collected and regurgitated by the state in annual reports comes from the doctors who do the lethal prescribing. In fact, the department is so incurious about the facts and circumstances surrounding assisted suicides, that even when it learns that a lethal prescription request was previously refused, no one calls the nonprescribing doctors to find out why. Nor do the "regulators" usually interview close friends and family members of the patient, who may have information about the patient's circumstances unknown to the prescribing doctor.

Still, here and there, disturbing information about the actual practice of assisted suicide in Oregon has trickled into the public domain. One such case came to light May 6, when psychiatrist N. Gregory Hamilton and his wife Catherine presented their paper to the psychiatrists' meeting, vividly demonstrating the dangers Oregon-style assisted suicide poses to incompetent and vulnerable patients. The Hamiltons are affiliated with Physicians for Compassionate Care, an Oregon-based medical association that supports providing better services to the dying and opposes assisted suicide.

Even though legalized assisted suicide has been practiced for more than six years, this is the first case in Oregon in which the patient's medical records have been made available for review. And a sorry tale they tell: Not only was the patient apparently not terminally ill as defined by Oregon's law when he first received his lethal prescription, but he was allowed to keep his cache of suicide pills despite being diagnosed as having "depressive disorder," "chronic adjustment disorder with depressed mood," "intermittent delirium," and even after being declared mentally incompetent by a court.

Michael P. Freeland was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000. He received a lethal prescription from Dr. Peter Reagan in early 2001. Reagan is a committed suicide activist; euthanasia advocacy groups often refer suicidal patients to him when the patients' physicians refuse to go along with their requests for suicide drugs. In other words, Reagan regularly takes on patients solely for the purpose of facilitating their suicides.

Freeland, as it happens, died naturally on December 5, 2002. Oregon law requires the patient to be reasonably expected to die within six months before receiving a lethal prescription. But Freeland's death occurred nearly two years after Reagan wrote the lethal prescription. Indeed, Freeland told the Hamiltons that Reagan contacted him after he didn't die in a timely fashion to reissue the prescription to make sure his assisted suicide remained legal!

On January 23, 2002, more than a year after receiving Reagan's poison script, 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," with "heaps of clutter, rodent feces, ashes extending two feet from the fireplace into the living room, lack of food and 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--presumably in case Freeland wanted to use them.