Mostly cancer patients who opt for physician-assisted deaths in Oregon and Washington

Cancer in newspaper clipping
In a review of medical aid-in-dying in Washington and Oregon, more than 75% of patients who took medication to end their lives had cancer. (PDPics / Pixabay)

More than three-quarters of the patients who received medication to end their own lives in Washington and Oregon had cancer, according to a new study.

Over almost a combined three decades, most of the patients who requested lethal prescriptions to end their lives had cancer or other terminal illnesses that are difficult to palliate and lead to the loss of autonomy, dignity and quality of life, according to the study published in the JAMA Network.

Researchers examined medical aid-in-dying in Oregon and Washington, which were the first two states in the U.S. to approve laws to allow people with terminal illnesses to take medication to end their lives. Oregon approved a law in 1994 and Washington adopted a similar law in 2008.

Since medical aid-in-dying laws were enacted, a combined 3,368 prescriptions were written in the two states, with 2,558 patients choosing to end their lives. Most patients had a diagnosis of cancer (76.4%), while the others had neurologic illness, lung disease, heart disease or other illnesses.

Concerns that medical aid-in-dying would unintentionally target socially disadvantaged patients had not materialized, according to the study. Most patients in both states were insured, white individuals with some level of college education, the study found. Of the patients who took the lethal medication, 51.3% were male and older than 65.

Six more states—Montana, Vermont, California, Colorado, Hawaii and New Jersey—and the District of Columbia now allow medical aid-in-dying. Maine has also approved a new law to allow the practice.

RELATED: As doctors drop opposition, aid-in-dying advocates target next battleground states

In an accompanying commentary, Daniel P. Sulmasy, M.D., Ph.D., of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, said such studies have the effect of “normalizing” the practice of physician-assisted suicide, which carries ethical concerns.

He worried that safeguards built into the original laws are being seen as barriers and being removed. A new law in Oregon now allows a patient to bypass a waiting period and take lethal medication within two days, he wrote.

A 2018 survey found that while the majority of physicians now support medical aid-in-dying for the terminally ill, their patients are still far more likely to approve of the practice.

At its annual meeting in June, the American Medical Association reaffirmed its opposition to medical aid-in-dying by a large margin. Delegates voted to reaffirm the AMA’s existing policy that “physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control and would pose serious societal risks.”

While the AMA remains opposed to medical aid-in-dying, some of its chapters have dropped their opposition and now take a neutral stance on the issue.