A study of doctor-assisted suicide in the Netherlands and Oregon counters the argument that making it legal may lead to more of these deaths among vulnerable groups like the disabled, although it did find some evidence for this among people with AIDS.
The research, published on Wednesday, tested the “slippery slope” argument advanced by some critics that by permitting doctors to help certain patients end their lives, members of some groups may die in disproportionately large numbers.
They analyzed data from two leading places where assisted suicide is legal and tracked 10 “vulnerable” groups, including the physically disabled, chronically ill, mentally ill, elderly, poor, racial and ethnic minorities, women and others.
Critics of assisted suicide have argued that people in these groups might be influenced to end their lives through doctor-assisted suicide.
“We found that there is no evidence of disproportionate impact of these practices, when legal, on any of those groups, with the exception of people with AIDS,” University of Utah bioethicist Margaret Battin, who led the study appearing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, said in a telephone interview.
The researchers looked at data on assisted suicide and euthanasia in the Netherlands from 1985 to 2005 and Oregon Department of Human Services annual reports for 1998 to 2006, along with surveys of doctors and hospice workers. Oregon is the only U.S. state where doctor-assisted suicide is legal.
“Those who received physician-assisted dying in the jurisdictions studied appeared to enjoy comparative social, economic, educational, professional and other privileges,” the researchers wrote.
Average age of 70
About 80 percent of those who died with a doctor’s help in the Netherlands and Oregon were cancer patients. The average age for those dying via doctor-assisted suicide was 70.
The only disproportionate deaths were seen among people with AIDS, an incurable viral disease, although the actual number of these deaths was extremely small, the study found. In Oregon, only six people with AIDS died via doctor-assisted suicide in the nine years studied, the researchers said.
People with AIDS were 30 times more likely to use assisted dying than, for example, a comparable group of people who died due to chronic respiratory illnesses, the researchers said.
Oregon’s law permits doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients who have been diagnosed by two doctors as having a terminal illness, with less than six months left to live. Patients then administer the drugs themselves.
The Netherlands allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs for suicide or perform “voluntary active euthanasia” in which the doctor rather than the patient administers the medication.
The “slippery slope” argument is just one of several advanced by people who oppose this practice. Other arguments against it include protecting the sanctity of life and the integrity of doctors.
Arguments advanced by some who support doctor-assisted suicide include preventing needless pain and suffering in terminally ill patients and giving these people the right to decide their own fate as they see fit.