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Two Decades of Death with Dignity

November 4, 2017

Twenty years ago today, Oregon voters rejected Measure 51 which would have repealed the Death with Dignity Act they had approved just three years before.

The law went into effect a week before the 1997 election, on October 27, but the Measure 51 campaigns dominated the media so much that, in the public eye, the law’s implementation began only with the defeat of the repeal.

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Over the past few weeks, we have commemorated the momentous occasion with series of articles looking back at the historic events that provided the foundation for our work. Through the recollections of key individuals and through archival materials, we we reviewed the pivotal year and its impact on the years that followed as well as on our accomplishments.

In the two decades since the Death with Dignity Act started providing peace of mind to dying Oregonians, we have defended the policy in state and federal courts.

The law’s passage established a template for other statutes and campaigns for end-of-life choice across the country, and our organization has worked to expand the policy nationwide, with four more states and Washington, D.C. adopting similar statutes between 2008 and 2016.

“Today the Oregon Death with Dignity Act is the public policy yardstick against which all other death with dignity reforms are measured,” the law’s lead author and our board member Eli Stutsman says. “Oregon’s death with dignity policy has become the bedrock of the ‘right-to-die’ movement in this country, and the public policy platform that still drives this social movement.”

Perhaps most importantly, the Act brought to the fore a conversation about death and dying in America that was long overdue, and gave terminally ill Oregonians the chance to determine the time and manner of their death.

The Death with Dignity movement advances with greater speed than ever; this year alone, policy reform around physician assisted dying was considered in an unprecedented 30 states. We will continue our work to define and grow the Death with Dignity movement for the next 20 years and beyond.


James Leonard Park
November 6, 2017 at 5:27 am


The next step for Oregon might be the creation of a right-to-die hospice.
Only 4 deaths in Oregon out of 1,000 uses Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.
Canada, after one year with its new right-to-die law,
has already reached almost 10 patients out of a thousand deaths
who use Canada’s national right-to-die law.
This is about 1% of all deaths in Canada.
Why do so FEW dying patients in Oregon
take advantage of their landmark law?

Perhaps it is because the hospice movement in Oregon
is still not fully cooperating with the right-to-die movement.

A right-to-die hospice service could be established in Oregon,
which would tell potential clients in advance
that everyone associated with that hospice
fully supports all legal end-of-life choices
that patients-and-their-families might make.

Here is a free handbook on creating a right-to-die hospice service:

laurie kelly
November 7, 2017 at 5:04 pm

I am very concerned about Alzheimers disease. Can I use Death with Dignity when I am at the stage where I can no longer recognize my family and have no quality of life? Seems it pertains to people with 6 months left to live and not dementia patients. Would like to sign consent ahead of time for when/if this is my destiny. Grandmother and mother suffered with this disease. Thank you for your insight. I live in California by the way.

Peter Korchnak, Death with Dignity
November 7, 2017 at 5:06 pm

In a word, no. Only mentally competent adult residents suffering from a terminal illness with a prognosis of 6 or fewer months to live are eligible to use the California End of Life Option Act (and similar laws around the country, in CO, DC, OR, VT, and WA). The patient must be of sound mind, i.e. be able to make his/her own healthcare decisions, when making the requests for medications under the Act, and must be able to self-administer and ingest the medication at the time of his/her choosing.

Should the attending physician receiving the request under the Act determine the patient’s judgment is impaired for any reason, the physician must refer the patient for psychological evaluation, and if that determines the patient’s judgment is impaired, the patient will be ineligible for the medication under the Act.

In other words, if the patient has dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, s/he is ineligible to request medication under Death with Dignity laws because his/her judgment or decision-making is impaired by the illness; if s/he is in early stages of these illnesses without cognitive impairment, s/he would not qualify due to not having a terminal diagnosis.

In addition, death with dignity laws cannot be used under advance directives because the patient would no longer be of sound mind or able to self-administer the medication when the advance directives kick in. The California End of Life Option Act states


(c) A request for a prescription for an aid-in-dying drug under this part shall be made solely and directly by the individual diagnosed with the terminal disease and shall not be made on behalf of the patient, including, but not limited to, through a power of attorney, an advance health care directive, a conservator, health care agent, surrogate, or any other legally recognized health care decisionmaker.

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