Is Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law affecting disabled COVID-19 patients?

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Correlation in not causation. Just because A precedes B doesn’t necessarily mean A caused B, even if lots of people predicted it would. But sometimes it can’t be ruled out. And that may be the case with Oregon’s decades-old physician-assisted suicide (PAS) law and recent efforts to deny life-saving care to COVID-19 patients with disabilities. 

National Public Radio recently ran a story suggesting that some Oregon hospitals and doctors may be withholding health care to COVID-19 patients with significant disabilities.

According NPR investigative reporter Joseph Shapiro, Sarah McSweeney, a lady with multiple disabilities, entered a hospital in a Portland suburb with COVID-19. The doctor wanted to put her on a ventilator. She didn’t get one, even though Oregon had a surplus at that time and was lending its ventilators to other states. She died.

In the story, Jake Cornett of Disability Rights Oregon cites similar cases in which COVID-19 patients with disabilities have been denied care. “For a single state to have multiple cases like this coming up over and over, it should raise the alarm bell. It should convince people that this is a real problem that we need to quickly address at the state and federal level,” Cornett says in the story.

NPR investigated a dozen cases in Oregon. State Sen. Sara Gelser, who has been looking into denial-of-care claims for people with disabilities, told NPR that people think these are “dystopian stories that would never happen, but they do, and they have, and they will.”

The story’s take-away is that some Oregon health care providers have determined that certain people with severe disabilities lack a quality-of-life threshold such that treating them isn’t worth the effort or cost.

When Oregon voters approved a physician-assisted suicide measure in 1994, it became the first state to do so. Many people raised concerns that it might lead to a pattern of devaluing life, especially for certain populations — the very young, very old and for those with severe disabilities.

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