By Hilary White

SALEM, Oregon, March 7, 2008 ( – A new study shows that doctors in Oregon, where physician assisted suicide (PAS) is legal, have prescribed lethal drugs to patients not actually suffering severe symptoms of their diseases. Patients have been prescribed the drugs upon experiencing only fear of future suffering and loss of dignity in the dying process, research reveals.

The study says, “Some Oregon clinicians have expressed surprise at the paucity of suffering at the time of the request among these patients”.

Under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, a terminally ill patient can request that his physician give him a prescription for a lethal dose of medication for the purpose of ending his life. Smith and other opponents of euthanasia and PAS have said that such laws, despite “safeguards” in regulations, are open to abuse and result in emotionally vulnerable patients being intimidated into making the request.

The study, from the Journal of General Internal Medicine, asked relatives of patients who died by assisted suicide in Oregon to describe the reasons for their loved-ones’ requests. “In most cases, future concerns about physical symptoms were rated as more important than physical symptoms present at the time of the request,” the report says.

The study backs up other reports that show fear of pain, disability and “being a burden,” rather than actual symptoms of disease, is a leading motive for requests for PAS.

The study said, “Concerns about what may be experienced in the future, including physical symptoms, were substantially more powerful reasons than what they experienced at the time of the request.”

The study’s authors suggest that doctors receiving a request from a patient with these fears should “focus on eliciting and addressing worries and apprehension about the future with the goal of reducing anxiety about the dying process”.

The study continued, “Addressing patients’ concerns with concrete interventions that help maintain control, independence and self care, all in the home environment, may be an effective way to address requests for [PAS] and improve quality of remaining life.”

Bioethics writer Wesley J. Smith, who was himself a volunteer in hospice, writes that a physician who accedes to requests for lethal prescriptions “is lending the weight of his or her authority to the burdens felt by the patient”.

“How tragic that people in Oregon who decided on assisted suicide may have cheated themselves out of a time that, for all their fears, they might have ultimately found to be well worth the living.”