Death with Dignity: the Laws & How to Access Them

In this section: Eligibility | Timeline | Protections | Resources

Overview

The Oregon, Washington, and Vermont Death with Dignity laws allow mentally competent, terminally-ill adult state residents to voluntarily request and receive a prescription medication to hasten their death. This is one of many end-of-life care options available in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont.

Oregon voters approved of their law in 1994 and confirmed their support in 1997. The Oregon Death with Dignity Act went into effect in 1997. The voters of Washington passed their law in 2008 and it was implemented in 2009 after no credible legal challenges. In 2013, Vermont lawmakers enacted their assisted death law—the first passed through legislation.

It's up to qualified patients and licensed physicians to implement these laws on an individual basis. There isn't a state program for participation in these laws. People don't apply to the health departments of any of the states to make a request for medication.

Please read the information below to learn more about eligibility and the application process, the application form, as well as the statutes in Oregon and Washington. If you have additional questions, please feel free to contact us.

Eligibility:

Terminally-ill patients who wish to obtain a prescription under the Oregon, Washington, or Vermont law must be a resident of one of the three states and follow a series of steps in order to be certified.

Among other requirements, a patient must be:

  1. 18 years of age or older,
  2. a resident of Oregon, Washington, or Vermont;
  3. capable of making and communicating health care decisions for him/herself;
  4. and diagnosed with a terminal illness that will lead to death within six months.

Two physicians must determine whether these criteria have been met.

How does a patient establish residency?
A patient must provide the attending physician proof of residency according to the states' laws. There isn't a timetable associated with establishing residency. Proof can include a state issued ID such as a driver's license, documents showing the patient rents or owns property in the state, state voter registration, or a recent state tax return. The attending physician must decide whether the patient has adequately established residency.

How long does it take to establish residency?
There is no minimum residency requirement. A patient must simply be able to prove he or she is a current, bona fide resident of Oregon, Washington, or Vermont.

Can a non-resident move to Oregon, Washington, or Vermont to use the law?
The law doesn't prevent anyone from moving to Oregon, Washington, or Vermont. However, reports show few—if any—patients have moved to Oregon, Washington, or Vermont to use the law.

Request Timeline

  1. First oral request to your physician
  2. 15 day waiting period
  3. Second oral request to your physician
  4. Written request to your physician
  5. 48 hour waiting period before you can pick up your prescribed medications
  6. Patient may pick up prescribed medications from the pharmacy

How do Death with Dignity laws protect all citizens?

Several safeguards in Death with Dignity laws ensure all patients are protected, and if they wish to use the law, they're in full control of the process. These safeguards and the request process ensure there's no chance patients are coerced to hasten their deaths. The terminally-ill patient:

  • verbally requests the medication from the physician twice; each request is separated by 15 days.
  • make a written request to the attending physician; the request is witnessed by two individuals who are not primary care givers or family members.
  • can rescind the verbal and written requests at any time.
  • must be able to self-administer and ingest the prescribed medication.

The law further requires...

  • The attending physician must be licensed in the same state as the patient.
  • The physician's diagnosis must include a terminal illness, with six months or less to live.
  • The diagnosis must be certified by a consulting physician, who must also certify that the patient is mentally competent to make and communicate health care decisions.
  • If either physician determines that the patient's judgment is impaired, the patient must be referred for a psychological examination.
  • The attending physician must inform the patient of alternatives, including palliative care, hospice and pain management options.
  • The attending physician must request that the patient notify their next-of-kin of the prescription request.
  • Use of the law cannot affect the status of a patient's health or life insurance policies.

The states' departments of health enforce compliance with the law. Compliance requires physicians to report all prescriptions to the state. Physicians and patients who comply with the law are protected from criminal prosecution. Physicians and health care systems are not obligated to participate in the Death with Dignity laws.

Resources

In each of the states there are groups which provide additional information on the Death with Dignity laws:

Forms for requesting the prescribed medication and the physician compliance forms are available through the states' health divisions:

The Oregon Health Authority and the Washington and Vermont Departments of Health provide information about the laws and the states' statutes. Learn more on their sites:

Defend dignity. Take action.

You are the key to ensuring well-crafted Death with Dignity laws for all Americans. With your financial and volunteer help, the Death with Dignity National Center, a 501(c)(3), non-partisan, nonprofit organization, has been the leading advocate in the Death with Dignity movement. Individual contributions helped us pass new Death with Dignity laws in Washington and Vermont, defend the Oregon law, and provide education and outreach programs for the vitality of the Death with Dignity movement.

donate today