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“A Better Way”: George Eighmey’s Journey Toward Death with Dignity Nationwide

September 12, 2017

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of implementation of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, we are featuring stories of those who in 1997 campaigned against the repeal of the law adopted by Oregon voters 3 years before. Today we are featuring George Eighmey, President of our Board of Directors, who was an Oregon State Representative in the 1990’s.

Other installments in the series:

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George Eighmey remembers the morning of November 4, 1997 like it was yesterday.

“I stood on the Interstate 405 overpass across the street from the downtown Portland Unitarian Church,” the former Oregon State Representative and current Death with Dignity National Center Board President recalls. “Four of us held a sign over the edge of the railing urging drivers to support the Oregon Death with Dignity Act by voting NO on Measure 51,” the ballot measure that sought to repeal the law that Oregon voters had passed three years prior. “A majority yes vote would have overturned Oregon’s first in the nation right to die with dignity law.”

This is the story of how George and a dedicated group of attorneys, advocates, medical professionals, and fellow politicians defeated the opposition and paved the way for the assisted dying movement nationwide.

George Eighmey (center) with California State Senators Lois Wolk and Bill Monning, sponsors of the End of Life Option Act.

Early Experiences with Death and Dying

George’s first experience with a terminally ill loved one came when he was just 7 years old. He had assumed caregiving responsibilities for his aunt, who was dying of cancer.

“I had to help wash her, dress her,” George says. “I’ll never forget it.”

His vivid memories of her suffering haunted him for years.

“As a boy, that made a huge impact on me,” says George. “I saw that her dying miserably was tragic.”

George became further acquainted with death – and the pain and suffering that accompanied it – during his high school years, when he worked as an orderly at a nursing home in Illinois.

“I saw far too many people dying in agony,” he says.

George’s early exposure to people suffering needlessly at the end of life would shape his future career and inspire his leadership in the Death with Dignity movement.

Career Choices

“Those experiences had an impact on my education, because in some way they guided me into practicing law,” George says. His specialty: “end-of-life wills, trusts, and working with families to set up their estates so that they wouldn’t have to worry about them at the end of life.”

In the 1980s, AIDS had begun to spread rapidly through the gay community. The fear, uncertainty, and social ostracism that afflicted both those suffering from the disease and their loved ones impacted George in a very personal way.

During his tenure as President of the Board of Trustees at Our House of Portland, a nonprofit providing health care and other services to low-income people with HIV/AIDS, George says he “saw far too many men end their lives tragically” before the disease could ravage their bodies and cause unbearable suffering.

“I just knew there had to be a better way,” he says.

At the time, George was working with a group of lawyers to draft advance directives, durable powers of attorney, and other legal means of ensuring that the partners of AIDS patients could make decisions for them that could spare them a painful, drawn-out death.

Death with Dignity and the Legislature Years

“Then I discovered this thing out there that I didn’t know about, called Death with Dignity,” George says. Here, he thought, was a way to help people with terminal illness end their suffering and die in peace.

Soon after his election to the Oregon state Legislature in 1993, George became immersed in the political, legal, and moral arguments for and against Death with Dignity.

At the time, the late Senator Frank Roberts, husband of then Governor Barbara Roberts, had just introduced his third Death with Dignity bill since 1989. Frank was dying of prostate cancer. He knew he likely would not live to see a law pass, but he nevertheless devoted his remaining time and energy to advocating for physician-assisted death.

George saw an opportunity to speak out in support of the proposed law as well as the robust signature-gathering campaign to place Measure 16, the Oregon Death with Dignity Act on the November 1994 statewide ballot.

He and similarly supportive legislators worked in concert with Oregon Right to Die – the political action committee (PAC) comprised of the authors and proponents of Measure 16 – and passionate grassroots advocates to persuade Oregon voters that Death with Dignity was a vital end-of-life option for terminally ill Oregonians.

On November 8, 1994, Oregonians passed Measure 16 by a margin of 51 to 49 percent.

George is quick to note that his efforts to advocate for the law and persuade his constituents to vote for Measure 16 were not the driving force behind the success of the 1994 campaign.

“However, I did as a legislator support it, and I told my constituents I supported it,” he says.

Three Years of Battles

George’s role as a political leader lent credibility to the nascent assisted-dying movement. His leadership in the subsequent legislative session would prove critical to the defense of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act and the defeat of the ballot measure that sought to repeal it.

Three weeks after the passage of Measure 16, the Catholic Church and National Right to Life filed a motion in federal court for an injunction against the new law. Two days later, in response to this and likely future court challenges, Oregon Right to Die created the Oregon Death with Dignity Legal Defense and Education Center (ODLDEC), which mounted a robust defense of the new law.

The organization, comprised of Measure 16 lead author, Oregon Right to Die and ODLDEC co-founder, and current Death with Dignity National Center Board member Eli Stutsman, JD, and other prominent attorneys, argued the case for the next three years.

Defending Death with Dignity in 1997

While the legal battle continued in federal court, George and his allies in the Legislature were girding for a political challenge.

In the 1997 legislative session, George was vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He faced staunch opposition from a number of his colleagues in the Legislature, who recruited legal and medical experts to make the case that life-ending medications would not work as planned – and that patients were being coerced into taking them in the first place.

“I was able as vice chair to give hearings” on the law, George says. “I got to pick people from both sides” of the issue. “There were overflow crowds of people. We had to have extra rooms with cameras so people could watch the testimony.

“There were people that said, ‘you have to swallow these pills and you’re going to wake up and you’re going to regurgitate and you’re going to be forced to do it,’” George recalls. “They believed there was coercion going on. Then there was the religious opposition. ‘I don’t want to see my loved one go to hell.’

“I would just ask them questions: how do you know this will happen? Where’s your evidence? Our purpose was to build up a record of showing how these people were in effect lying so that we could have them on record giving this false testimony.”

George was approached by Eli Stutsman; Geoff Sugerman, the campaign manager for the Oregon Right to Die PAC’s successful effort to pass the Oregon Death with Dignity Act; and others with the PAC and ODLDEC, who sought his help in marshaling support in the state Legislature.

Many of the people who had voted against the Death with Dignity Act [in 1994] voted against Measure 51 because they said, ‘I’m tired of the Legislature telling us what to do when we’ve already made the decision.’

“I introduced bills and amendments to the law, even though we didn’t want the bills to pass necessarily,” George explains. “We introduced them to prove that the opponents were hypocritical. They were saying the law was fatally flawed: that there wasn’t a mandatory psychological evaluation: that a doctor or family members didn’t have to be present when the patient took the medicine. So all my bills said this must be mandatory, that must be mandatory.” The amendments were defeated, but George and his allies in the Legislature had made their point.

“I did as much as I could to try to defeat the effort of sending it back,” George says. But the legislature succeeded in placing Measure 51 on the ballot. If passed by voters, Measure 51 would repeal the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, taking away from Oregonians the option to choose the time and manner of their death.

Campaigning Against Measure 51

“That’s when I started working closely with Dr. Nancy Crumpacker,” one of the first doctors to prescribe under the law, “her husband, Dr. Rick Baer, and Governor Barbara Roberts,” whose husband, Frank, died in 1993, without having the opportunity to make use of the law he fought so hard to pass. “We started going everywhere, speaking as much as we could” with doctors, hospice workers, and other medical professionals to convince them of the merits of the law and potential benefits to their patients. The group also spent countless hours giving media interviews and occasionally debating opponents.

During this time, George started working more closely with Oregon Right to Die and ODLDEC. Soon after, he met Barbara Coombs Lee, a nurse and a lawyer, who was the chief petitioner for the Oregon Death with Dignity Act and would go on to found and lead the end-of-life advocacy nonprofit Compassion & Choices.

He ticks off a lengthy list of collaborators and allies who contributed immeasurably to the defense of the law, including Drs. David Grube, Peter Goodwin, Peter Patricelli, Peter Rasmussen, and Peter Reagan; the late Steve Telfer, an influential lobbyist and former Death with Dignity board member; and businessman and Oregon Right to Die co-founder Elvin “Al” Sinnard, who passed away in 2000.

Together, this diverse group fought tirelessly to defend the Oregon Death with Dignity Act from the formidable legislative and legal efforts to undo it.

As was the case with the 1994 campaign, the opposition was a well-funded and high-profile mix of religious lobbyists, groups of healthcare professionals, and medical associations that took a strict stance against what they and many others referred to as “physician-assisted suicide.”

The Measure 51 supporters also had the state’s paper of record on their side. The Oregonian’s editorial board wrote column after column urging passage of the measure and repeal of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.

The vast majority of the state’s papers did not follow suit. Fully 29 newspaper editorial boards opposed Measure 51 and threw their support behind the law on the books, arguing that the voters had already shown their support for Death with Dignity and shouldn’t have to vote again.

“We said during the hearings in 1997, the people in the state of Oregon voted on this,” George says. “They will reject you sending it back and having them vote again, even when they’re opposed to Death with Dignity.”

“As it turned out, many of the people who had voted against the Death with Dignity Act voted against Measure 51 because they said, ‘I’m tired of the Legislature telling us what to do when we’ve already made the decision.’”

Measure 51 Goes Down

November 4, 1997 was a pivotal day for the Death with Dignity movement. Would voters be persuaded by opponents’ arguments and repeal the Oregon Death with Dignity Act? Or would they uphold the law they passed 3 years prior?

In the end, it wasn’t even close. Measure 51 failed by a larger margin than the margin by which Measure 16 had passed, 59.91% to 40.09% (666,275 to 445,830 votes). Exit polls revealed that 72% of Democrats, 51% of Republicans, and 83% of nonaffiliated Independents supported the Act. Support also cut across gender lines (60% of women and 70% of men). Although the majority of Catholics (56%) and Protestants (60%) voted against the repeal, it was “no religion” voters who voted against it overwhelmingly (89%).

George and supporters of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act celebrated their victory at the ballot box. What most people did not know was that they had achieved a crucial legal victory as well.

While the media focused on Measure 51, the US Supreme Court ruled in Lee v. Oregon that, while there was no constitutional right to assisted dying, states must decide the issue. The decision meant not only that the Oregon Death with Dignity Act was safe from legal action but that the law officially took effect on the date of the court’s decision, October 27, 1997—days before voters defeated Measure 51.

“Then it became a matter of what to do next,” George says.

Implementing the Oregon Death with Dignity Act

In August 1997, ODLDEC awarded a $50,000 grant to Compassion in Dying Federation, which had been providing counseling services to terminally ill patients in Washington since 1993, to start a chapter organization in Oregon. George was asked to be executive director of Compassion in Dying Oregon (CIDO) a position he would hold for the next 12 years.

The first step in the implementation process, George says, was educating medical professionals about the law. The misinformation spread throughout the campaigns for Measures 16 and 51, combined with many doctors’ reluctance to participate in such a controversial and untested process meant that the learning curve was steep.

“We were cold-calling hospices, pharmacies, doctors,” George recalls. “We would call and explain who we are, we’d say, ‘this patient of yours, would you be willing to help them access the law?’”

George Eighmey

George Eighmey (right) at a 2002 press conference with future fellow Death with Dignity National Center board members Carol Pratt (left) and Eli Stutsman (2nd from left)

“Most at that time said no,” George says. “There was only a handful of doctors and pharmacies involved. That’s when we started putting together forms and policies to make sure that they understood the law. We knew it was an uphill battle to educate them. But as time went by, it got more and more successful.”

George says that many doctors changed their views on prescribing when one of their patients asked to access the law.

“Theoretically, they could take a position in opposition. But when their own patient came to them and they knew this person, they said, I cannot do this to this person I know.”

CIDO provided each patient with two volunteers, one of whom had a medical background, who answered questions and provided guidance on the day the patient chose to take the medication. The medically trained volunteer would prepare the medication and ensure compliance with the law, while the other would answer the patient’s and family’s burning questions about the process.

During his tenure with Compassion in Dying Oregon, George worked with over 1,600 Oregonians who wanted to consider the option of using the law. He personally sat at the bedside of dozens of patients as they ingested the medication and took their final breaths.

“I can still see their faces, I can still hear what they said,” George says. “Every single one of those people had a powerful impact on my life.”

In Retirement, a Continuing Mission

George retired in 2010, but his passion for Death with Dignity endured. He continued to speak across the U.S. and internationally about the Oregon experience, providing the hard data that demonstrated the Oregon law worked as intended, with none of the malfeasance or high failure rate predicted by opponents.

George joined the Death with Dignity National Center board in 2013. He worked closely with our staff and with legislators in Vermont and California to pass landmark assisted dying laws.

Death with dignity | assisted dying | aid in dying

George Eighmey (right) with Vermont advocate Dick Walters.

It was critical that George present himself “not as somebody who was advocating for the law, but as somebody who was just the expert on the data from Oregon.” Equally important was working closely with grassroots advocacy groups in each state, “so that we could put a local face on the issue, instead of our face.”

In November 2016, voters passed a Death with Dignity bill in Colorado and the Washington, D.C. Council passed the Death with Dignity Act in the nation’s capital.

In the 2017 legislative session, 30 states considered assisted dying legislation.

And polls continue to demonstrate strong support for Death with Dignity laws across all demographics.

“This is a social issue whose time has come,” George says.

But that does not mean that Death with Dignity proponents can rest. Well-funded opponents will continue to spread misinformation; lawmakers in some states may still hesitate to support physician-assisted death for fear their constituents will vote them out of office.

Nevertheless, George believes that the movement’s momentum is unstoppable—and he will continue to be on the front lines, providing facts, education, and support.

“In almost every movement, you change the hearts and minds of people one person at a time,” George says. I’ve been involved in so many movements—gay rights, historic preservation, Planned Parenthood—and it’s always the one-on-one relationship that changes everything. Once that person knows you and knows your commitment and gets involved, you can change their mind.”

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