WASHINGTON -- Oregon established a record in 2010 for the number of physician-assisted suicides in a year with 65.
The total, which surpassed the previous high of 60 in 2008, means Oregon has recorded 525 deaths by assisted suicide since its Death With Dignity Act took effect in late 1997. That law permits terminally ill citizens of Oregon to take their own lives by using lethal doses of drugs prescribed by doctors.
The report came amid some setbacks in Europe for what proponents call the "death with dignity" movement:
-- The French Senate defeated a bill Jan. 25 to legalize euthanasia in a 170-142 vote.
-- The European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously Jan. 20 there is not a right to government-sanctioned assisted suicide.
In assisted suicide, doctors are permitted to prescribe drugs to aid in suicides but not to administer them to the people taking their own lives. In euthanasia, physicians administer lethal drugs to people to cause their deaths.
Opponents of assisted suicide decried the record total in Oregon, as well as some specific aspects of the report by the state's Public Health Division.
"The rising number of assisted suicides is no cause for celebration. In fact, it is an indictment of a medical system that is meant to focus on care," Southern Baptist bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell said. "Instead of improving palliative care so that patients do not desire to end their lives prematurely, Oregon has taken the lethal option. Palliation, not homicide, should characterize compassionate care."
Mitchell is professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and a consultant to the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
The Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation (PCCEF) cited the following among its concerns in a Jan. 27 release:
-- The report is incomplete, since it does not include information on 15 people who had lethal prescriptions written for them last year.
-- Only one of the 65 people who took their lives by means of assisted suicide had a psychological or psychiatric referral.
-- There are more unknowns in the report than previously. For instance, in 45 of 65 cases, it was unknown if a health-care provider was in attendance when the drugs were taken. On 37 occasions, it was unknown if there were complications after the medication was ingested.
"When such a substantial proportion of important information is unknown, how are Oregonians to know what is really happening with assisted suicides in the state?," PCCEF said in its release.
Alex Schadenburg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, wrote on his blog, "The reporting system has a conflict of interest, whereby the physician who wrote the lethal prescription submits the report. The physician will not admit to abuse."
Oregon's latest report was based on information received by Jan. 7, according to the Public Health Division. The report was issued about two months earlier than in previous years.
The division acknowledged it may have failed to receive reports so far on others whom they know received lethal prescriptions but they don't know if they died in 2010.
It is the highest-ever yearly total among the states where it is legal. Two other states, Washington and Montana, have legalized physician-assisted suicide in recent years. Washington has not issued a report for 2010, but it said at least 36 people died by means of assisted suicide in 2009, the first year it was legal in the state. Montana, where assisted suicide became law through the courts, has not released a report on 2010, its first year after legalization. Voters approved assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington.
The 2010 Oregon report again showed people who took advantage of assisted suicide had three concerns far more than others -- 94 percent were concerned about "losing autonomy," 94 percent about being unable "to engage in activities making life enjoyable" and 79 percent about a "loss of dignity."
Of the 65 people who died by assisted suicide, 51 percent were married and 49 percent were either widowed, divorced or never married.