Terminal: What Does It Mean


 Under current doctor-prescribed suicide laws and proposals, a person who could live for many years is eligible to receive a prescription for a lethal overdose of drugs.

Proponents of doctor-prescribed suicide invariably point to the requirement that a person must be terminally ill to obtain the prescription for what they call “death with dignity.”  They further explain that the person must have been diagnosed with a six-month or less life expectancy. They call this a safeguard.

What they omit is the fact that, in all the assisted-suicide laws that have passed in the various states – as well as those that have been proposed this year – the definition of “terminal” allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to individuals even if the patients could live for many years.

This is because the laws and proposals define “terminal” as an illness or condition that will result in death within six months, but do not specify whether the person could survive with appropriate treatment.

There is documentation that this has occurred under Oregon’s assisted suicide law.  In official reports from Oregon, diabetes is noted as the underlying terminal condition that made the patient eligible for a lethal prescription.[1]  If insulin-dependent diabetics do not take insulin, they will die within six months.  If they do take the medication, they can live for many years.

Dr. Charles Blanke, an oncologist and professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, described another case of a young woman with Hodgkin lymphoma who had a 90 percent chance of living for decades with recommended treatment.  The woman, however, refused the treatment. “That was a very challenging situation,” he said.  “You have to ask yourself, ‘Why doesn’t that patient want to take relatively non-toxic treatment and live for another seven decades?”   Blanke ended up prescribing the deadly overdose for the woman anyway.[2]

[1]  Official report for 2016 deaths under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, Oregon Public Health Division, “Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act – 2016,” pg. 11, fn. 2.  Available at: http://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Documents/year19.pdf. (Last accessed 8/17/17.)

[2]  Tara Bannow, “Rural Oregonians Still Face Death with Dignity Barriers,” Bend Bulletin, August 14, 2017.  Available at: http://www.bendbulletin.com/health/5512373-151/oregonians-can-choose-how-their-roads-end.  (Last accessed 8/17/17.)