Oregon shows that assisted dying can work safely

The ‘slippery slope’ argument we so often hear has not become a reality


The first assisted dying law came into practice over eighteen years ago in the US state of Oregon after a public referendum. Since the law’s inception yearly reports have collated and published information and data which shows how the law works, and critically, highlight that a transparent law is better than the current situation we have in the UK.

The latest report shows that last year 155 people obtained life-ending medication, while 105 had an assisted death. The most recent data we have on the death rate in Oregon is from 2013 when 33,931 people died. This means that 0.3 per cent of deaths per year are assisted.

This is a small – but significant – number of people who exercised control over their imminent death. Many more people would have benefited from openly talking about this choice with their doctor (1 in 50 dying Oregonians initiate these conversations) and simply having the peace of mind of knowing it is an option if they need it will help many people with a terminal diagnosis.

This is not the case in the UK for dying Britons. Currently a person can be prosecuted and imprisoned for up to 14 years for assisting a loved one to die. One person a fortnight is travelling to Dignitas, choosing an assisted death earlier than they would if legal in this country.

Remarkably, British people make up the second largest nationality of patients at Dignitas after Germany, which shares a border with Switzerland. For every person who goes abroad, a further ten terminally ill people are ending their life in the UK, often alone.

Kevin Davis had lost the use of his legs as he was in the last stages of renal cancer and was found at the bottom of the stairs in a pool of blood after he had attempted to end his life. His family do not know how long he lay there, possibly alive. Crucially, we must not forget that there are many more people that are currently suffering against their wishes and will die without the choice that is their right.

If Oregon has shown assisted dying works safely for over 18 years then why hasn’t the UK changed the law already? The British public overwhelmingly support assisted dying and recently Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill won two key votes at Committee Stage – the first vote in Westminster on an assisted dying law for ten years – which showed a 2:1 majority of support in the House of Lords. Now it is looking as if the only barrier to law change is time.

But a vocal minority of opponents seem determined to stop dying people having the option of assisted dying and are now putting their own spin on the latest Oregon report. The number of assisted deaths rose 44 per cent in the last year from 73 to 105, but solely referring to this does not give an accurate picture, especially as other years have seen a drop. The percentage increase sounds dramatic but the absolute numbers involved are very low, and only 0.3 per cent of deaths in Oregon are assisted.

This hasn’t stopped Lord Carlile of Berriew drawing unfounded conclusions though. Speaking to the Catholic Herald, he said:

“I regard these as alarming figures…It suggests to me that in amongst these figures there are cases of people making the decision for assisted suicide for the wrong reasons – such as economic reasons, including the cost of private health care, draining the family assets, feeling a nuisance to their children, depression.”

There is actually no basis for these ‘suggestions’ in the report, which lists the three most common reasons for an assisted death as ‘loss of autonomy’ (91.4 per cent), decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable (86.7 per cent) and loss of dignity (71.4 per cent).

In fact the report demonstrates that the law you enact is the law you get: the criteria for assisted dying has not been extended beyond terminal illness for the eighteen years the law has been in place, so the ‘slippery slope’ argument we so often hear has not become reality. Ultimately it is up to the dying patient to choose if they want an assisted death.

This is not the debate that the public deserve. Oregon has shown that a clear and transparent law can give dying people choice while better protecting vulnerable people.

Mickey Charouneau is press officer at Dignity in Dying. Follow him on Twittter

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