1994 Oregon Ballot Measure 16
In 1994, the people of Oregon voted to approve Oregon Ballot Measure 16. This measure created the Oregon Death with Dignity Act (ORS 127.800-995). The Death with Dignity Act made physician-assisted suicide legal in some cases. This means that if a competent adult with a terminal illness wanted to, they could get a prescription from a doctor. They could then use that prescription to kill themselves.
The Death with Dignity Act made Oregon the first state in the United States to made physician-assisted suicide legal. The law survived many legal challenges. The Attorney General of the United States even tried to stop the law. However, in 2006, in a case called Gonzales v. Oregon, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Oregon could continue to use the Death with Dignity Act. Over the next ten years, four more states made physician-assisted suicide legal for terminally ill people.
Some states, like Oregon, allow citizens to vote on whether a law should be created. This is called a ballot measure. In 1994, Ballot Measure 16 was added to the voting ballot (the voting ticket) in the state of Oregon. The ballot measure asked if Oregon should pass a law that "Allows Terminally Ill Adults to Obtain Prescription for Lethal Drugs." The vote was close, but most voters said yes:
|Ballot Measure 16|
|Allows Terminally Ill Adults to Obtain Prescription for Lethal Drugs|
Date: November 8, 1994
Since the voters had approved the ballot measure, the Oregon Death with Dignity Act (DWDA) was created. However, the law did not go into effect until 1997. This was because a judge ordered an injunction – a judge's order blocking the law from being used. Eventually, on October 27, 1997, the injunction was removed.
In November 1997, the Oregon state legislature put another ballot measure on the voting ticket. They did this after the Supreme Court decided Washington v. Glucksberg. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled in support of laws against physician-assisted suicide. This new ballot measure asked the voters if the Death with Dignity Act should be repealed. 60% of the voters said no; they wanted the Death with Dignity Act to stay:
|Ballot Measure 51|
|Should Ballot Measure 16 be Repealed?[a]|
Date: November 4, 1997
The Oregon Death with Dignity Act (DWDA) allows a terminally ill person to get a prescription from a doctor that they can use to end their life. (The DWDA specifically says that people who use the DWDA are not committing suicide.) However, there are many requirements. For example:
- The person must be over 18, live in Oregon, and be competent (able to make decisions for themselves)
- Two doctors must agree that the person has a terminal illness
- The person must make three different requests to their doctor and wait at least 15 days
- The person must get a psychological exam if their doctor thinks a mental illness, like depression, is affecting their decision
- Their doctor must speak to them about other choices, like hospice care
In 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft decided to try to stop the DWDA. He threatened to use a federal anti-drug law to punish doctors who wrote prescriptions under the DWDA. He threatened to take away their prescription licenses and even charge them as criminals. The state of Oregon, joined by a doctor, a pharmacist, and terminally ill patients, sued to stop Ashcroft. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled in favor of Oregon. The Death with Dignity Act could continue.
Between 1998 and the end of 2015, 1,545 people have gotten prescriptions through the Death with Dignity Act. Of these people, 991 have chosen to use the medicine to end their lives. The other 554 (36%, or almost 2 in every 5 patients) chose never to use their prescriptions.
Of the 991 people who died from taking DWDA medications:
- Most (77.1%) had cancer. The next most common disease (in 8% of patients) was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS; also called Lou Gehrig's disease).
- Just over half were men (51.4%)
- The median age at death was 71 years old
- Almost all (90.5%) were getting hospice treatment, and almost all (94%) died at home
- Almost all (95.6%) chose to tell their families that they were using the Death with Dignity Act. Forty patients (4.4%) chose not to tell their families, and 19 patients (2.1%) had no families to tell.
Many of the 991 people who used their medications had the same worries about dying. The most common were:
- Losing control over life and the ability to do things for themselves. Almost everyone (91.6%) had this worry.
- Not being able to do activities that made them enjoy life (89.7%)
- Losing dignity (78.7%)
The law says that a person has to wait at least 15 days between asking to use the DWDA and getting a prescription. However, some people waited up to 1009 days (over two and a half years} before using their prescriptions.
After the Supreme Court's decision in Gonzales v. Oregon, other states realized they could also legalize assisted suicide without getting into trouble with the federal government. Since the Death with Dignity Act was decided in 2006, four other states have made physician-assisted suicide legal: Washington, Montana, Vermont, and California.
- A "yes" vote means that the voter wants the Death with Dignity Act to be cancelled. A "no" vote means that the voter wants the Death with Dignity Act to stay.
- ORS 127.800 - 127.897
- "Frequently Asked Questions: Oregon's Death with Dignity Act". Oregon Public Health Authority. State of Oregon. Retrieved April 5, 2016.
- "Make or Change State Law". Office of the Secretary of State of Oregon. State of Oregon. Retrieved April 4, 2016.
- "Background Brief on Oregon Death with Dignity Act" (PDF). Legislative Committee Services. Oregon State Legislature. September 2014. Retrieved April 3, 2016.
- "Initiative, Referendum and Recall: 1988-1995" (PDF). Oregon Blue Book. Oregon Secretary of State. 2016. Retrieved April 5, 2016.
- Stefan, Susan (2016). Rational Suicide, Irrational Laws. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 124–126. ISBN 978-0-19-998119-9.
- "Initiative, Referendum and Recall: 1996-1999" (PDF). Oregon Blue Book. Oregon Secretary of State. 2016. Retrieved April 5, 2016.
- "Legal Backgrounder: Supreme Court Considers Challenge to Oregon's Death with Dignity Act – Gonzales v. Oregon and the Right to Die" (PDF). The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The Pew Foundation. September 30, 2005. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 18, 2017. Retrieved April 3, 2016.
- "Oregon Death with Dignity Act: 2015 Data Summary" (PDF). Oregon Public Health Division. State of Oregon. 2016-02-04. Retrieved 2016-04-04.
- Frequently Asked Questions about the Death with Dignity Act (from the Oregon Department of Public Health)