Deaths by assisted suicide in Oregon have soared by a huge 44 per cent in the past year alone, official figures have revealed.
The unprecedented surge means that deaths by assisted suicide – in which a patient is given lethal drugs by a doctor so they can kill themselves at home – are running at a record high in the US state.
The figures are likely to embarrass campaigners who have continually held up Oregon’s 18-year-old Death With Dignity Act as a model of best practice.
But it will give a boost to opponents who have argued that there are no safeguards possible to effectively regulate assisted suicide and euthanasia, with all jurisdictions where either is legal experiencing the “slippery slope” of incrementally rising death rates and the widening criteria of those who qualify for state help in ending their lives.
According to the 2014 Oregon Assisted Suicide Report, there were 105 deaths from assisted suicide deaths in 2014, representing a 44 per cent increase from the 73 in 2013.
Overall, there were a total of 155 prescriptions for suicide in 2014, a 48 per cent rise from the 105 prescriptions in 2013. Not all of the applicants had committed suicide as the figures were being collated.
The figures also show a drop in the proportion of suicides involving cancer patients from 80 to 68 per cent, corresponding with a rise in suicides in those with such non-terminal illnesses as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.
At least one person who died by assisted suicide in 2014 obtained lethal drugs in 2012, the figures reveal.
Both facts show that the law is being flouted because it stipulated that only terminally ill people whom doctors deemed were within six months of death qualified for assisted suicide. This was a key safeguard of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, which is “based closely” on the Oregon law.
Lord Carlile of Berriew, who is opposed to assisted suicide, suggested that the figures meant the American law was as open to abuse as euthanasia laws in Holland, where a recent poll found that a fifth of doctors were willing to perform euthanasia on demand, and Belgium, a country which last year legalised lethal injections even for children.
“I regard these as alarming figures,” he said. “There can be no proper basis for such a dramatic increase.
“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.
“None of these are a proper basis, even in Lord Falconer’s view, for being assisted with a suicide.”
He added: “It demonstrates that we are talking about people dying to save money for other people. It is utterly unacceptable and contrary to anything proposed in this country.
“It demonstrates that using Oregon as an example for ‘good practice’ is simply a false basis. It reinforces my view that assisted suicide is simply a bad idea and that no one has produced safeguards to protect people from what is happening in Oregon.”
The Oregon report was also shocking because it showed that just 33 per cent people asking for assisted suicide cited fears over effective pain relief and symptom control as a reason compared to 96 per cent who said they were concerned about the loss of autonomy resulting from their illness, 91 per cent who said their lives would be less enjoyable and 75 per cent who cited a loss of dignity.
A total of 42 per cent said they feared becoming a burden on their families, friends and their relatives.
According to Living and Dying Well, a Westminster think tank, the equivalent number of deaths in Oregon in 2014 would exceed 1,500 if replicated among the UK population.
Lord Falconer’s Bill is running out of parliamentary time but it is inevitable that campaigners will seek to introduce a similar Bill after the General Election of May 7.
The Bill’s Second Reading last summer prompted Dutch regulator Theo Boer to break his silence over the “disaster” of the euthanasia experiment in his own country, warning British legislators: “Don’t go there.”
A previous supporter of euthanasia, he said that the practice was out of control in Holland and impossible to regulate.
Sarah Wootton, the chief executive of Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, insisted that the Oregon law has worked “safely” for 18 years and was a better option than the UK ban on assisted suicide, which can carry a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
She said that a law modelled on Oregon “would better protect vulnerable people than the current situation which forces people to take these decisions behind closed doors”.
“In the absence of an assisted dying law one Briton a fortnight will continue to travel abroad for assistance to die, usually before a time they would have chosen an assisted death if the option had been available at home,” she said.
“We also know that for every person who does this a further 10 will end their life at home, sometimes alone out of fear that their loved ones could be prosecuted for assisting them.”
She added: “An assisted dying law would not result in more people dying, but in fewer people suffering.”
Assisted suicide differs from euthanasia in that it does not involve the direct participation of the doctors prescribing the drugs in the act of killing.
Besides Oregon, assisted suicide is legal in the US states of Washington, Montana and Vermont as well as in Switzerland, where more than 100 British citizens have committed suicide at Dignitas.
Earlier this month, Canada joined the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in the small group of countries where euthanasia is legal after its highest court upheld a challenge to the law that forbade the practice.