For more than 25 years, Death with Dignity National Center, Death with Dignity Political Fund, and their predecessor organizations have defended and advanced policy reform based on the model legislation, the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.
The First Decade: Defining and Defending Policy
During the first decade of our existence, from 1993 to 2003, our goal was to define an effective policy, i.e. the model legislation, the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, and to defend it against legal challenges, both in state and federal court.
In 1993, businessman Elven “Al” Sinnard, attorney Eli Stutsman, attorney Mark Trinchero, Dr. Peter Goodwin, and nurse Myriam Coppens founded Oregon Right to Die, a political action committee, to write and pass the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. The following year the Oregon Right to Die PAC campaigned successfully for the passage of Measure 16 in Oregon; 51% of Oregon voters approved the Death with Dignity ballot initiative which created the Oregon Death With Dignity Act, allowing those who are terminally ill to hasten death in consultation with their physician and under strict safeguards. This passage made Oregon the first U.S. state and one of the first jurisdictions in the world to officially legalize medical aid in dying.
After the Oregon voters passed the Act, Stutsman and a group of other advocates from the PAC founded in December 1994 the Oregon Death with Dignity Legal Defense and Education Center (“ODLDEC”), the forerunner to the Death with Dignity National Center.
In 1997, the Oregon Right to Die Political Action Committee (“PAC”) successfully defeated Measure 51, an attempt to ban Death with Dignity in Oregon, by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent. Having succeeded in its purpose, the PAC soon closed operations.
At the turn of the millennium, in 2000, the ODLDEC led the campaign for Question 1, a Death with Dignity initiative in Maine, which lost narrowly, 51 percent to 49 percent, with only a 6,000 vote difference statewide.
In 2001, ODLDEC partnered with activists in Vermont to establish Death with Dignity Vermont in order to work toward success in the state legislature. The following year, the ODLDEC turned its attention to Hawaii, where a bill fell short of passage in the state legislature by three votes.
In 2003, ODLDEC became Oregon Death with Dignity and merged with Death with Dignity National Center, a California-based nonprofit with headquarters in Washington, DC. Headquartered in Portland, Oregon, the new organization adopted the name Death with Dignity National Center, dissolved the California corporation, and closed the DC office. At the same time, the Oregon Death with Dignity Political Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit was created, which was later renamed Death with Dignity Political Fund.
The Second Decade: Expanding Nationwide
During the second decade, roughly from 2004 to 2014, we focused on expanding to new frontiers on a state-by-state basis, accomplishing policy reform in both Washington and Vermont.
In addition, from 2001 to 2006 we defended Oregon’s law against U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft who attempted to block it by authorizing federal drug agents to prosecute doctors who prescribed life-ending medication to help terminally ill patients die. In January 2006, the US Supreme Court voted 6 to 3 in favor of Death with Dignity in the case of Gonzales v. Oregon, ruling that former Attorney General John Ashcroft overstepped his authority in attempting to prosecute Oregon’s physicians and pharmacists.
In 2008, we successfully led the coalition for Yes on I-1000, Washington State’s Death with Dignity campaign, to a 58 percent to 42 percent victory. The Washington Death with Dignity Act went into effect in March 2009.
In 2011, we partnered with with Patient Choices Vermont to help pass Death with Dignity legislation through the state legislature. We also established a steering committee in Massachusetts to explore a ballot initiative in 2012. The effort transitioned into Death with Dignity 2012, the group that successfully put the issue on the ballot. The measure, Question 2, was narrowly defeated 51 percent to 49 percent.
In 2013, the Vermont legislature passed and Governor Shumlin signed Act 39, the Patient Choices and Control at the End of Life Act, the first Death with Dignity statute in the US adopted through the legislative route.
In late 2014, we began working with legislators in California to draft a Death with Dignity bill. The California End of Life Option Act ultimately passed in September 2015 and Governor Brown signed it on October 5. The law went into effect on June 9, 2016.
The Third Decade: Advancing and Accelerating Reform
At the beginning of our third decade of work, we are expanding beyond the state-by-state approach by building a regional coordination system to support multiple states at varying stages of progress toward achieving policy reform.
There is one thing stronger than all the armies of the world and that is an idea whose time has come.