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Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act

Only in Oregon is physician-assisted suicide legal. Voters in Oregon passed the Death With Dignity Act (DWDA) in 1994 by a narrow margin. The measure legalized physician-assisted suicide under certain circumstances. Physicians may not be forced to participate in the DWDA. A person who sought to employ the law needed to show:

  • Patient must be at least 18 years of age
  • Suffering from a terminal illness
  • With a life expectancy of six months or less
  • The patient must make two oral requests for assistance in dying
  • The patient must make one written request for assistance
  • Two physicians must be convinced that the patient is sincere, not acting on a whim, and that the decision is voluntary
  • The patient must not be influenced by depression
  • The patient must be informed of “feasible alternatives” such as hospice care and pain control
  • The patient must wait 15 days between the verbal requests

Almost immediately after passage, court challenges succeeded in suspending the law. After the Supreme Court rulings in Glucksberg and Vacco v. Quill in 1997, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals lifted an injunction on DWDA. The law took effect on October 27, 1997. Voters in Oregon were asked to vote whether to retain the law in 1997. This time, 60 percent of voters approved of it.

In 2004, according to figures supplied in an annual report by the Oregon Department of Human Services, forty physicians wrote prescriptions for the lethal dosages. The total number of prescriptions written was 60, which represented the first decline since the law took effect. The high was 68, in 2003. Thirty-seven Oregonians “ingested medications prescribed under provisions of the Act;” compared to 42 patients in 2003. This number reflects that about one in 800 deaths in Oregon is attributed to DWDA. By December 31, 2004, 25 people who had been given the medication had not ingested them. Thirteen of the people had died from their illnesses, while the rest were still alive. (The numbers do not add up to 60 because of prescriptions issued in 2003, but not used before December 31, 2003.)

The median age of a patient receiving a prescription under DWDA in 2004 was 64. Just over one-half had at least a baccalaureate degree. Males and females were equally likely to avail themselves of the law. Malignant tumors accounted for 78 percent of the illnesses. According to the report, the three most frequently cited reasons for requesting assisted suicide were: a decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable, loss of autonomy, and a loss of dignity. Death came anywhere from five minutes to 31 hours after ingestion of either pentobarbital or secobarbital.

Inside Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act