Adapted from SAVES — South Australian Voluntary Euthanasia SocietyThe following Fact Sheet has been prepared by the South Australian Voluntary Euthanasia Society (SAVES). For further information visit their website athttp://www.saves.asn.au
SAVES Fact Sheet No.18
Oregon’s Doctor Assisted Suicide Law
In November 1994 a Citizens’ Initiated Referendum was held in Oregon on whether to legalise medically assisted suicide in certain limited circumstances. The measure was narrowly won by 51% to 49%, making Oregon the first government in the USA, and indeed in the world, to allow medically assisted suicide as a clear legal option for the terminally ill.
The Oregon Death with Dignity Act includes the following provisions:
- Allows an attending doctor to prescribe medication to end life in a humane and dignified manner under prescribed conditions;
- medication is for self administration but the doctor is allowed to be present;
- Requires a fully informed, voluntary decision by the patient;
- Applies to the terminally ill with a prognosis of less than 6 months to live;
- Requires a concurring second medical opinion;
- Requires two oral requests with a 15 day waiting period from the first;
- Requires a witnessed written request with a 48 hour waiting period from time of signing;
- Allows cancellation of the request at any time;
- Provides for penalties in the event of coercion of patients;
- Provides for counselling as appropriate;
- Promotes informing next of kin at patient’s discretion;
- Requires documentation and reporting to a monitoring authority.
The Act does not authorise the doctor to administer the medication.
Oregon’s new law was due to come into effect on 8 December 1994 but was blocked by an appeal to the District Court from a National Right to Life Committee. The appeal claimed that the new law was unconstitutional and that vulnerable people could be disadvantaged.
On 26 June 1997, the US Supreme Court ruled, in another context, that there is no right to medically assisted suicide under the US Constitution, but that legislation on the issue is up to individual States.
As the legal processes blocking the implementation of the Act drew to a close, the Oregon Government decided that the issue would be put to the people of Oregon again. The result of vote taken in November 1997 was 60% to 40% for the Act to stand.
The Oregon Government issued its first report on the use of the Act in August 98, nearly 10 months after it came into effect:
10 Oregon residents (5 men and 5 women) had obtained lethal prescriptions
8 used the medication to die and two died of their illnesses
The 10 prescriptions were written by 9 different doctors
Average age was 71: one had heart disease and the remainder cancer
No pain or distress during dying was reported in any of the cases
No doctors were disciplined for non-compliance with the requirements of the Act.
Subsequent reports have been consistent with this cautious use of the Act. The second annual report is expected towards the end of 1999.
Oregon strengthened its Death with Dignity Act in June 1999 with a number of amendments to make it more effective. Residential requirements were clarified and protection offered to organisations and individuals not wishing to participate. The amendments made clear that the qualification for use of the Act was not to be based on age or disability, but on the requirements set out in item 2 above.
Currently the Act is under threat by proposed Federal Legislation which would ban doctors in all States from using drugs for assisting suicide. The so-called Pain Relief Promotion Act passed the Lower House (271-156) in October 99 but requires approval of the Senate and the US President before it becomes law.
Further information contact SAVES at: http://www.saves.asn.au
Or contact: Hon Secretary, SAVES, PO Box 2151, Kent Town, SA 5071, Australia – Fax + 61 8 8265 2287