Physician-Assisted Suicide Most Used By Well Off Whites

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Gloria Taylor smiles during a news conference in Vancouver, British Columbia June 18, 2012. Taylor, who suffers from ALS, won the right to die when the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled to suspend the law banning physician-assisted suicide. REUTERS/Andy Clark

When the Death with Dignity Act was approved many health officials became concerned that people of the lower socioeconomic class would be pressured to kill themselves because they feared their families could not afford the necessary health care needed. However, those who have chosen to take advantage of the Death with Dignity Act are different than what was expected. Demographics demonstrate a large percentage of patients who chose to receive prescription for the assisted suicide are white, well-educated and financially comfortable.   

Patients such as Dr. Richard Wesley who is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is an incurable disease of the nerve cells, fall under the demographics released by Oregon and Washington states.

Washington and Oregon states are the only two states thus far who has approved the Death with Dignity Act. Under the Death with Dignity Act, individuals who are terminally ill are allowed to end their life through voluntary self-administration of lethal medications prescribed by a physician for that purpose.  Oregon first approved the act in 1997, and Washington State followed suit in 2009.  

Barbara Glidewell, an assistant professor of Oregon Health and Science University told The New York Times, “There was a lot of fear that the elderly would be lined up in their R.V.’s at the Oregon border.”

Not only were health officials worried those who can't afford health care would take advantage of the medical assisted suicide, but also they feared the lethal medication would become mainstream, crossing over from use for terminal illnesses to being used for non-terminal illnesses.

While the amount of people who have decided to use the assisted suicide has increased over the years it has not spiraled out of control. In 1997 only about one in a thousand of Oregon residents have chosen to die under the act, today the number has risen to one in 500 residents. In Washington it remains one in a thousand.

Both Washington and Oregon use meticulous and strict guidelines to determine who will be considered to receive the drugs. Two physicians are required to confirm that a patient has a maximum of six months left to live. The requests must be made twice, with each request made 15 days apart, before the prescriptions are given. The drugs also must be self-administered.

As for Dr. Wesley, who takes solace in knowing he is in control of how his life ends, faces a challenge with the requirement of the drug being self-administered. Suffering from ALS, one loses control of muscle function. Dr. Wesley stated he hopes when the time comes he'll be able to tip the medication into his feeding tubes.

The American Medical Association disagrees with physician-assisted dying; many doctors stating they did not became a physician to assist patients in dying.

Massachusetts is the next stating proposing medical assisted suicide, with 60 percent of surveyors in support of the Dignity 2012 campaign.

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