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Oregon's Death With Dignity Law Turns 10

Ten years ago this week, Oregon became the first state in the nation to legalize physician assisted suicide.

To this day, the Oregon Death with Dignity Act remains the only state law to allow a physician to write a prescription for deadly drugs to a patient who is terminally ill.

The law has had many challenges.  But as Colin Fogarty reports the Death with Dignity Act is as solidly in place as ever.

These are Richard’s last days.  His younger brother Brian took a year off work to take care of Richard. Brian didn’t want their last name used to protect his brother’s privacy.

Richard has a degenerative lung disease and needs a machine to pump  room air through a tube in his nose.

Brian says the illness is irreversible  and steadily eroding his brother’s ability to breath.

Brian: "He will suffocate.  And he knows from just talking with doctors and just common sense that that is a horrible way to die, just slowly choking."

Richard is getting hospice care.  But Brian says his brother has also qualified for Oregon Death with Dignity Act.  So a doctor has prescribed lethal drugs that Richard can take to end his own life.

Brian: "Having a front row seat to your brothers slow demise and watching him suffer is a very difficult thing to witness.  But to know that escape is now within our grasp offers a tremendous sense of comfort to him and to me."

10 years ago this Saturday, the sponsors of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act celebrated the law taking effect after a long legal battle.

One of the chief petitioners Barbara Lee predicted the law would put families such as Brian and Richard’s at ease.

Barbara Lee: "They will derive a lot of comfort and hope from just knowing that this is there…even if they never make a request, even if they never fill any prescriptions.  It will still lighten the load."

Lee and other right to die advocates predicted Oregon would not be alone for long.

Instead similar proposals have gone down in every other state that has considered them. But if right to die activists were overly optimistic, dire predictions by opponents of the Oregon law have also proven to be off the mark.

Critics said allowing terminally ill patients to end their own lives would disproportionately affect poor people, the uninsured, minorities, and patients who are mentally impaired.  But according to a study this year by University of Utah researcher Margaret Battin there’s no evidence of that.

Margaret Battin:  "These very vivid fear mongering claims appear to be without support."

Even so the law has been under almost constant legal attack.  Congress debated a change to the federal Controlled Substances Act, to prevent doctors from prescribing lethal drugs for assisted suicide.

In October 1999 Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio railed on his Republican colleagues for trying block a law approved twice at the Oregon ballot.

Peter DeFazio: "These people on this side of the aisle are in favor of states' rights everyday of the week are standing up and saying, we’re for states' rights, as long as we agree with the state…preempting the will of the people of Oregon.  It’s not the state of Oregon.  It’s the people of the state of Oregon twice by initiative and referendum who passed this law."

The bill never passed under President Clinton.  But in 2000, then Texas Governor George W Bush supported the change to the Controlled Substances Act.

George W. Bush: "And to the extent that controlled substances relieve pain, that’s fine.  But to the extent that controlled substances take a person’s life, it’s not fine and I would sign that bill."

But President Bush didn’t have to sign a bill.  Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a policy directive in 2001 that said physician assisted suicide is not a legitimate medical practice.

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court said Ashcroft overstepped his authority — a ruling that kept the Oregon law in place.  Now, even the law’s most vocal opponent in Oregon — Dr. Ken Stevens with the group Physician’s for Compassionate Care — says the best he can hope for is to keep the law from spreading beyond Oregon.

Ken Stevens:  "If anything ever changes in Oregon, it will not be in our generation.  Oregonians are so independent and we have no plans to try to change it."

For Brian and his brother Richard, the most difficult questions these days are practical ones. What will be Richard’s last meal?  Who will he invite to his death?  Brian says picking up that prescription of lethal drugs at the pharmacy made him think not about the  legal, ethical, and political debate over Oregon’s one of a kind law.  He sat in his car weeping simply over losing his brother.

Brian:  "It’s a very peculiar concept. This is going to be some potion that is going to do what we’ve talked about doing for a long time.  And now we were looking down a tunnel that was ultimately his death.  And that was very sad."

In ten years, at least 292 people have ended their own lives under the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.

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