Background and methods: On October 27, 1997, Oregon legalized physician-assisted suicide. We collected data on all terminally ill Oregon residents who received prescriptions for lethal medications under the Oregon Death with Dignity Act and who died in 1998. The data were obtained from physicians' reports, death certificates, and interviews with physicians. We compared persons who took lethal medications prescribed under the act with those who died from similar illnesses but did not receive prescriptions for lethal medications.
Results: Information on 23 persons who received prescriptions for lethal medications was reported to the Oregon Health Division; 15 died after taking the lethal medications, 6 died from underlying illnesses, and 2 were alive as of January 1, 1999. The median age of the 15 patients who died after taking lethal medications was 69 years; 8 were male, and all 15 were white. Thirteen of the 15 patients had cancer. The case patients and controls were similar with regard to sex, race, urban or rural residence, level of education, health insurance coverage, and hospice enrollment. No case patients or controls expressed concern about the financial impact of their illness. One case patient and 15 controls expressed concern about inadequate control of pain (P=0.10). The case patients were more likely than the controls to have never married (P=0.04) and were more likely to be concerned about loss of autonomy due to illness (P=0.01) and loss of control of bodily functions (P=0.02). At death, 21 percent of the case patients and 84 percent of the controls were completely disabled (P<0.001).
Conclusions: During the first year of legalized physician-assisted suicide in Oregon, the decision to request and use a prescription for lethal medication was associated with concern about loss of autonomy or control of bodily functions, not with fear of intractable pain or concern about financial loss. In addition, we found that the choice of physician-assisted suicide was not associated with level of education or health insurance coverage.