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Celebrating 20 Years of Oregon’s Law, Working for the Next 20 Years

November 9, 2017

This is the full transcript of the speech former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts gave at our luncheon commemorating the 20th anniversary of implementation of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. A version, edited for length, appears in the Winter 2018 issue of our quarterly newsletter, The Dignity Report.

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There are so many stories to tell, I get so nervous. We have known each other for a very long time and there are others in this room that I have also known and worked with respected and admired and followed for so many years.

So first let me say good afternoon and thank you so much for making me part of this special day of celebration of the 20th year of Oregon’s Death with Dignity law.

George Eighmey asked me to share with you some very personal memories regarding the beginning of Oregon’s landmark law. So I will do that that today knowing that those memories will recall both pride and sadness.

During the 1980s my late husband Senator Frank Roberts was the leading public proponent of the death with dignity proposal in Oregon, introducing the law three times in the Oregon legislature. And even though Frank was a senior member of the Senate, in the first 2 sessions he couldn’t even get a hearing on his bill. But he was a leader before his time and he wasn’t about to quit.

A cancer treatment four years earlier had put him permanently in a wheel chair. But you could hear his motorized scooter barreling down the Capitol corridors as the 1991 legislative session convened.

I had just begun my first months as Oregon’s new governor when Frank had just reintroduced his death with dignity bill for the third time. Frank’s legislative colleagues aware of Franks health challenges and his ongoing battle with pain finally set a hearing for his bill.

It may have simply been what I recall a sympathy hearing. But on that historic hearing day the stage was set. Frank understood more than anyone else that this hearing meant that, for the first time ever in Oregon, we would learn who stood where on the legislation. Before, since no one would talk about it, we did not know. Supporters, both citizens and legislators, emerged as the hearing progressed. Supporters now understood they actually had allies. It was a watershed moment for the legislation.

So let us celebrate today this 20th anniversary, and let’s begin to work for the next 20 years.

—Former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts

Now the legislators failed to act on the third bill, but a coalition emerged from that hearing, including advocates from legal, medical, and political communities that believed that Oregon’s initiative law would have allowed them to take the issue directly to the citizens of Oregon. That coalition worked to draft a new law that would give end-of-life choice to terminal Oregonians and to add carefully written safeguards to the law.

Frank faced a new challenge in 1992: he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I remember the day Frank and I waited together in his doctor’s office for his latest medical test results. We had experienced this process for four and a half years and it felt by now pretty routine. But this day turned out to be anything but routine.

The doctor sat down beside us and spoke. “Frank I’m sorry to report that your cancer had spread. There is no good news here. This is a terminal condition. You’ve got about a year at the most.”

The room was silent. Frank closed his eyes. After a period of silence the doctor did something I will never understand: he told Frank he would set up an appointment for the following week to begin chemotherapy. Frank and I looked at each other confused, and then Frank asked the two questions every patient in his position should ask. “Will this treatment extend my life?” The doctor answered yes. And then the second critical question: “For how long?” With some hesitation the doctor answered a month maybe even six weeks.

For Frank chemo was not about a cure; it was not about hope. This was not about quality or kindness. It was a routine medical response, a one-size-fit-all answer.

Frank said no—no to the treatment. He opted to maintain the most control possible for the time he had remaining.

He never regretted that decision. Frank knew Oregon’s Death with Dignity law would not reach the ballot in time for him to have the choice. But as he grew more ill and weak, he still remained an advocate for the law, asking me often how the initiative signature gathering was coming along. He wanted to know how we were doing.

Frank died on Halloween 1993. But not before he understood that the initiative was happening and that his hope for Oregon was moving forward. He always, always believed Oregon voters would support the law.

Today as we celebrate this 20th year history of the Oregon Death with Dignity law, I remain so proud of Frank’s determined leadership on the law and so grateful to those who picked up the torch many in this room and reached success for our citizens.

I have been honored to be an advocate for the law in Oregon, in Washington state, to testify three times before the Vermont legislature, and also before the California legislature. In 2016 I was excited to deliver my message of support to the citizens of Colorado via a series of TV ads, and most of you remember the strong passage in Colorado and the exciting outcome of the law. I hope I played a small part.

We have had some wonderful successes with the law and its application. But our work is still before us. I am proud, proud to remain a foot soldier in our battle for compassion and dignity at the end of life.

So let us celebrate today this 20th anniversary, and let’s begin to work for the next 20 years.

Thank you.

One comment.

Edith G. Lippert
January 19, 2018 at 7:49 pm

At 88 years old and married 65 years-we are very lucky . However, if our health and quality of life changes radically it is SO comforting to know that we have options. We are so grateful to Barbara and Frank for their efforts to provide Oregon’s citizens with ability to make these deciisions!

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