The Oregon Trail to Death: Measure 16

By Campbell, Courtney S. | Commonweal, August 19, 1994 | Go to article overview

The Oregon Trail to Death: Measure 16


Campbell, Courtney S., Commonweal


The first "patient" of Dr. Jack Kevorkian's "medicide" was a woman from Portland, Oregon, Janet Adkins, who had been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer's. The national headquarters of the Hemlock Society, and the home of Derek Humphry, author of the best-selling book Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying, are located in Eugene, Oregon. Thus, it comes as little surprise that the state of Oregon will soon join its neighboring states of Washington (1991) and California (1992) in debating and voting on a citizen initiative, Measure 16, to legalize physician-assisted suicide. The expectation of the umbrella Oregon Right to Die Coalition is that the Oregon "Death with Dignity Act" [DDA], unlike its failed predecessors, will appeal to a majority of voters this November. If that scenario occurs, Oregon will have, consistent with its self-cultivated image of pioneering moral progressivism, blazed a new trail in providing alternative end-of-life choices for the terminally ill. Whether this trail should be followed is an issue certain to be divisive in our culture for many years to come.

As approved by the Oregon Supreme Court, the DDA asks voters the following: "Shall law allow terminally ill adult Oregon patients voluntary informed choice to obtain physician's prescription for drugs to end life?" While I shall explicate later some of the statutory safeguards and legislative loopholes embedded in this language, it is important initially to recognize the difference in scope between the DDA and the failed Initiative 119 in Washington and Proposition 161 in California. In those referendums, voters were asked to approve "physician aid-in-dying," which included not only assistance in suicide but also active euthanasia, such as lethal injections, by physicians. By contrast, the Oregon DDA restricts the role of a physician to providing the prescription for a drug such as Seconal to end one's life. However, having obtained the prescription, the patient may elect not to use it. Thus the professional's role is deemed by proponents as not morally compromised. Indeed, according to Eli Stutsman, legal counsel for Oregon Right to Die, the DDA simply would "codify existing medical practice" for the terminally ill, thus permitting conduct which is now performed secretly to be performed openly without fear of prosecution (personal correspondence, June 14, 1994).

Stutsman contends that the process of drafting the DDA occurred with three principal constituencies in mind. First, the DDA is intended to advance the interests of patient autonomy by making the right to die "a fundamental civil right." Second, the DDA would ensure that health-care professionals can provide the form of care that best promotes the patient's welfare with guarantees of legal immunity. Finally, the DDA offers to the public a model of "reasonable regulation" of physician assistance-in-suicide with safeguards that the public will understand as "sensible without being onerous." While the public debate is not yet in full swing in Oregon, the efforts to satisfy the interests of these constituencies have so far been successful in dissuading several major political players from expressing opposition to the DDA.

The Oregon counterparts of the political parties and medical associations that opposed the Washington and California initiatives have thus far either endorsed the DDA or adopted a position of "neutrality." A moderate subgroup within the Republican party (The Dorchester Group) endorsed the DDA at its annual conference in February. The traditionally more liberal state Democratic party could not be this specific, although it did affirm in its 1994 platform: "We support the right of terminally ill persons to control their own end-of-life decisions." The bipartisan support of the DDA has certainly delighted proponents: "Death with dignity is an issue that cuts across the political spectrum because it involves personal choice," commented Geoff Sugarman, the executive director of Oregon Right to Die, following the March adoption of the Democratic platform. …

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