Fourteen years after Oregon, Washington considers a Death with Dignity law

By Peg Sandeen of Portland, Oregon. Peg is the executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center in Portland.

Fourteen years ago, in 1994, voters approved the Oregon Death with Dignity law. Today, Oregon remains the only state that allows dying and suffering patients the legal right to hasten their death.

On Election Day, Washington voters will consider passing a near-identical version of Oregon's law. Backed by former Washington Governor Booth Gardner, with an assist from Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts and Portland-based Death with Dignity National Center, Washington political insiders tell me this will be a hotly contested race.

Passage of this law in Washington would go a long way in validating what we did here in Oregon, especially now after ten years of successful implementation of the law. Save a handful of the most zealous opponents, most everyone in the medical community agrees that implementation of the Oregon DWD law has been virtually flawless. None, and I mean none, of the horror stories concocted by opponents ever came to pass.

We did not turn into the suicide state. We did not force old or disabled people to kill themselves. We did not target the vulnerable or depressed. We let each dying person decide; surrounded by family, counseled by their medical providers, and confident in their right to control the end of their life.

We know that 40% of the terminally ill patients who obtained the medication did not use it. For each one of these dying patients, comfort came in the form of peace of mind, knowing they had the option to end their suffering on their own terms.

Even the Oregonian, which editorialized against the original law three times before it even qualified for the 1994 ballot, could not find fault with how the law has been applied and monitored in the decade it's been in effect.

There have been other positive effects coming from passage of Oregon's law, benefits equally as important as providing the right for people to make their own choices.

Oregon ranks among the leaders in the nation in the quality of our palliative care, in providing proper pain management to patients, and in having the best hospice care.

Those improvements, though most notable here at home, have spread across the country. The debate we spurred in Oregon – the same one occurring in Washington today – brought new attention, new treatments and a far better way of life for dying and suffering people. For patients, end-of-life care is better. Not just in Oregon, but across the country.

Oregon has fought this ethical battle virtually on its own these past 14 years.

After its passage, the law was enjoined for three years by Federal Judge Michael Hogan. Finally, in 1997, it went into effect just days before voters trounced a legislative attempt to repeal the law by a whopping 62-38 margin. (Here's a great article on the legislative effort to repeal the law during the 1997 legislative session when Gordon Smith was Senate President.)

During those three years, Oregon Right to Die (the PAC formed to pass the original law) led the defense of the law. The State's Justice Department was involved on the legal side, but the heavy lifting was done by ORTD.

Gradually, as it shifted its work into implementation issues, the group also created a non-profit called the Oregon Death with Dignity Legal and Education Defense Fund. Eventually, the group became the Death with Dignity National Center.

During all those name changes, DWD persevered as Congress and John Ashcroft's and Alberto Gonzales' Justice Department took their turns taking whacks at the law. And each time – led by the Death with Dignity National Center, attorney Eli Stutsman, and a handful of other ally groups – the law was upheld, reaffirmed, allowed to remain in effect, unrestrained from federal intervention.

Over the years, our small non-profit operating out of an office in downtown Portland with a staff never greater than 8 people, raised and spent over $8 million to defend, promote, and protect the law.

Oregon has led the nation in establishing groundbreaking social initiatives. In addition to the Death with Dignity Act, we were the first state to approve a woman's right to vote, enact the bottle bill, and establish the open beaches act. While there have been strong efforts in Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont to pass death with dignity laws there either on the ballot or through legislative efforts, other states have not followed suit as they did with the other initiatives. And for 14 years Oregon has weathered a constant and sometimes ferocious onslaught against this important law all on its own.

Yet Oregon's lonely law has held fast; surviving court challenges, federal injunctions, and John Ashcroft. Now that these battles have been won, credence has been lent to this law. We are hopeful that our neighbor to the north will now follow suit; that we will soon have a new ally to help continue improving end-of-life care.

It can only make the law better if passed in Washington. It can only spur better medicine and better treatment for dying patients. It can only lead to a better end-of-life, whether the law is used or not, for those who are suffering the final stages of a terminal disease.

And from day one in 1994, right up to this vote in Washington State on November 4, 2008, our motivation has always come from a desire to give dying and suffering people the right to have a better end-of-life.

Visit Yes on 1000 to learn more.

  • George Seldes (unverified)

    You forgot to mention that paragon of "moderation" -- the one who absolutely, positively will not identify his party in his ads -- tried repeatedly to sell out Oregon on this issue. Take a bow, Senator Gordon Smith, and thank you for proving that your "moderation" is as phony as you are.

  • (Show?)

    George, good point -- Senator Smith's opposition to this strongly-supported and carefully measured law never made a whit of sense to me, and belies his claim to moderation or maverickyness.

  • Jiang (unverified)
    <h2>He represents the Elders in Utah, not the voters of Oregon. As such, his moral positions are completely consistent.</h2>
guest column

connect with blueoregon