Here’s How “Death with Dignity” Really Happens

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As the General Assembly again debates legislation (HB 370/SB 354) to legalize physician-assisted suicide, it’s crucial for legislators to understand exactly how “death with dignity” really happens. For most, it is not at all what they expect at first consideration. In fact, once they learn more about the process, it’s clear PAS is anything but a dignified way to die. Here’s the truth about PAS:

  1. Once a patient is approved for “death with dignity” by a physician (often not by their regular doctor, but one who is willing to prescribe PAS) they are written a prescription for the lethal drugs. The most common prescription is 9 – 10 grams of Seconal (secobarbital.) To reach this dosage, the patient must ingest 90 – 100 capsules in under an hour.  The details here are important to understand: Seconal was not created as a suicide drug. It was prescribed regularly by doctors for a variety of approved, on-label uses, but in much smaller doses. Only when a patient ingests 9 – 10 grams or 90 – 100 pills is the drug lethal. Patients are being prescribed an intentional overdose.
  1. With the prescription in hand, patients go to their local pharmacy to pick up the lethal drugs. They will stand in line with their neighbors waiting to pick up a prescription designed only to kill them.
  1. Once the person has the lethal drugs in their possession they will go home to commit suicide. “Death with dignity” does not take place in a health care setting and no health care providers – doctors or nurses – need be present. Patients do not have to notify anyone – including their family – that they are planning on committing suicide.
  1. Most patients will then ingest the lethal drugs – the intentional overdose – and die. However, what’s overlooked is that almost one third of people do not take the lethal drugs at all. According to the Oregon Death with Dignity official data, since PAS was made legal in 1997, 36% of people who received the lethal drugs from a pharmacy did not take them. That’s 554 unused suicide prescriptions. 554 bottles of intentional overdoses lying around.

This last point is terrifying. A ready-made suicide cocktail is sitting in at least 554 houses in Oregon ready to be intentionally taken by someone who is suicidal or mistakenly taken by someone else in the house, putting children at especially high risk. And unlike other prescriptions that could be mistakenly ingested, this prescription only serves one purpose – to kill.

The details of the PAS bills matter. Legislators must understand how “death with dignity” really works and the many unintended consequences that are playing out in states where it is already legal.

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