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REPORT FINDS 53% OF DOCTORS RESPONDING ASSISTED ONE AIDS PATIENT'S SUICIDE.

Byline: New York Times

Dr. Stephen O'Brien, an AIDS specialist here, said Wednesday that the question of suicide is never far from the minds of his patients who are suffering from some of the terrible effects of AIDS.

``I have had patients who have taken their own lives,'' said O'Brien, who tends to some 200 AIDS patients at the East Bay AIDS Center in Berkeley. ``And I have prescribed the medicines with which they have done that.''

An article being published today in The New England Journal of Medicine indicates that O'Brien is not alone. The article reports that a survey of 118 members of the Bay Area Community Consortium, an association of local AIDS doctors, found that 53 percent of the respondents had reported assisting at least one of their patients in committing suicide. The survey defines assisting suicide as ``prescription of a lethal dose of narcotics to a patient.'' It was conducted from November 1994 to January 1995.

While the survey predates the advent of powerful new AIDS drugs and reflects only a small number of AIDS doctors nationwide, it nonetheless suggests that doctor-assisted suicide is has been a common, if silent, option for patients and doctors fighting AIDS. Other studies found that 7 percent to 9 percent of doctors reported assisting patients in suicide.

The latest report, written by five San Francisco medical professionals, comes at a time when the issue is under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court heard arguments in early January on two federal appellate court decisions supporting the right to suicide.

``It's an extremely frightening issue for physicians,'' said Dr. Milton Estes, the director of the Forensic AIDS Project for the city of San Francisco, who cited a statement issued in October by Thomas Lazar, California's deputy attorney general, warning physicians that assisted suicide ``remains a felony.''

Estes, like many doctors, would not say whether he had ever assisted a suicide. Still, he said that counseling on suicide, and its methods, is ``an unspoken fact'' for doctors treating AIDS patients.

Even doctors who speak more openly about suicide are careful to stress the patient's primary role in making the decision.

``It's not like, `Here's some morphine, go kill yourself,' '' said O'Brien, who said he never prescribed medicines specifically for a suicide. ``I say this medicine is for pain, this medicine is for sleep and this is for anxiety. And a lot of them already know how to mix them appropriately to take their own lives.''

Other doctors say their loyalty to patients overrides legal concerns.
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 6, 1997
Words:425
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