In May 2008, 64-year-old retired school bus driver Barbara Wagner received bad news from her doctor. She found out that her cancer, which had been in remission for two years, had returned. Then, she got some good news. Her doctor gave her a prescription that would likely slow the cancer's growth and extend her life. She was relieved by the news and also by the fact that she had health care coverage through the Oregon Health Plan.
It didn't take long for her hopes to be dashed.
Barbara Wagner was notified by letter that the Oregon Health Plan wouldn't cover her prescription. But the letter didn't leave it at that. It also notified her that, although it wouldn't cover her prescription, it would cover assisted suicide.1
Welcome to Oregon-style health care. Welcome to Oregon, the only state to have transformed the crime of assisted suicide into a "medical treatment." Welcome to the state where assisted-suicide advocates say that the "Death with Dignity Act" has worked flawlessly for more than ten years. And be aware that an attempt is now underway to expand Oregon-style assisted-suicide laws into every state in the nation, using a strategy called "Oregon plus One."
That strategy is now playing out in Washington State. But no matter how the Washington campaign ends, every state will face the same challenges in upcoming months and years.
Oregon wasn't the first state where an assisted-suicide law had been proposed. In 1991, Washington State voters rejected Initiative 119, which would have legalized both euthanasia (permitting doctors to end patients' lives with a lethal injection) and assisted suicide (permitting doctors to prescribe an intentional deadly overdose of drugs for a patient to commit suicide). The following year, an identical proposal, called Proposition 161, was on California's ballot. Both measures failed by a vote of 54 to 46 percent.
Recognizing that the specter of a syringe- wielding physician had played a significant role in causing voters to repulse the measures, the Hemlock Society and its spin-off group, Compassion in Dying, revised their proposal and, two years later, Measure 16, the "Oregon Death with Dignity Act" (which permits physician-assisted suicide, but not physician-administered lethal injections) appeared on Oregon's ballot. It passed in 1994 by a vote of 51 to 49 percent and went into effect in 1997.
The assisted-suicide groups that were behind the Oregon law thought they had found the magic solution. They fully expected that other states would soon follow. But they were wrong: Since Oregon's law passed in 1994, there have been 89 proposals in 22 states,2 all modeled on Oregon's law. Each and every one met with failure.
Rather than giving up, supporters sought to determine the reason behind the stall. They turned to focus groups and polling. The result? They found that the word "suicide" (like the image of the syringe-wielding physician associated with euthanasia) was causing voter revulsion.
So they embarked on a mission to sanitize the language associated with their efforts. No longer do its advocates refer to "assisted suicide." Instead, they call it "aid in dying," "physician-assisted dying," "death with dignity," or other soft-sounding names that could apply to any number of things, including wiping a dying patient's brow. In addition, groups behind the efforts changed their names. Hemlock and Compassion in Dying merged under the new name Compassion & Choices. Working hand in hand with the Portlandbased organizations, Oregon Right to Die and the Death with Dignity National Center, they developed a strategy to break the logjam.
In 2005, a plan that would establish a new starting point - but not a new goal - was developed by the Death with Dignity National Center in conjunction with Compassion & Choices. They called it "Oregon plus One."3 They theorized that Oregon is not a trend-setting state, so at least one more state would be required to mount successful efforts in other states. …