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Oregon psychologists' perspectives on their role as defined by Oregon's Death with Dignity Act

13 December 1999


In 1997, through voter initiative, Oregon became the first state to pass an assisted suicide law. The "Death with Dignity Act" (ORS 127.800-127.897) allows mentally competent, terminally ill individuals to obtain a physician's prescription for drugs to end life. Section 127.825 states that if in the opinion of the referring or consulting physician the individual is suffering from a psychiatric or psychological disorder or depression causing impaired judgement, the physician is mandated to refer the patient to a psychiatrist or psychologist for counseling. The purpose of this study was to explore Oregon psychologists' attitudes about assisted death as defined by Oregon's Death with Dignity Act and to determine what role these attitudes play in their assessment of those requesting this option.

A 36-item survey was distributed to all licensed psychologists (942) in the state of Oregon. Responses totaled 494 (54.1 %). Of those surveyed, 86.5% believe in the concept of rational suicide and 89.5% believe in an individual's right to choose physician-assisted suicide as an option under Oregon's Death with Dignity Act. Psychologists did not differ significantly in their attitudes based on gender, age, theoretical orientation, practice setting, years of experience, or exposure to terminally ill individuals. Religious orientation was the only variable significantly related to attitudes on physician-assisted suicide.

Discussions with clients about physician-assisted suicide as an option for themselves or loved ones were acknowledged by one-fourth (23%) of the respondents. Of those in a position to participate, 49% indicated that they would perform an evaluation under the Death with Dignity Act if requested to do so.

The implications of these findings suggest the need for increased education and training around this issue as well as support and guidance from state and national professional organizations and the development of practice guidelines.


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