20 Years of Death with Dignity

Eli Stutsman, JD
Eli Stutsman, JD

Eli Stutsman, the lead author on the Oregon Death with Dignity Act and one of the National Center’s founding board members, published an informative piece in the current issue of American Bar Association’s GPSolo. His article titled “Twenty Years of Living with the Oregon Death with Dignity Act” looks back at the challenges Oregon’s groundbreaking law faced, the progress made after the law held up to those challenges, and the current climate for the law throughout the US.

I had the honor of working with Eli while he was writing the article. Throughout his writing process, it was enlightening to work with such an early major player in the Death with Dignity movement. I already had a pretty good handle on the general facts about the development and defense of the Death with Dignity laws, but this project allowed me to get a more in-depth view from a person who changed the legal landscape of physician-assisted dying.

In the article, Eli talked about other US efforts to allow for Death with Dignity and how he and his colleagues with Oregon Right to Die looked to change the approach:

Oregon Right to Die sought to change the law. Others had tried before us but were unsuccessful. In 1991 Washington voters defeated Initiative 119, and in 1992 California voters defeated Proposition 162….Only a few sought to dissuade us. They had been closest to the losses in Washington and California, and they counseled it was too soon—the “movement” could not afford another loss.

We thought differently. We had studied the losses in Washington and California. We learned from those who had gone before us. We were willing to meet the many burdens imposed when campaigning for social reforms against a well-funded opposition, but more importantly, we were taking a fresh approach.

In the article, Eli described how their political committee studied what had and hadn’t worked, researched what end-of-life care looked like at the time, and distilled it all down to three key points to address in the legislation itself:

First, dying patients were already hastening the dying process in a covert practice, most often by accumulating and ingesting prescription medications, occasionally with wink-and-nod assistance from their physicians. Second, there were in fact genuine competing public policy interests held by valued and trusted community stakeholders, and we needed their support or, in the alternative, to minimize or neutralize their opposition. Third, our political opponents were ready with numerous fear-based arguments—arguments that played well in the media—and our clip file and polling data proved it.

Eli’s article then dove into the history of Oregon’s law; the rigorous legal, legislative, and congressional challenges it endured; and how the law’s worked since it went into effect in 1997. The meticulous construction of the law by Eli and his colleagues with Oregon Right to Die paid off. The law prevailed through the myriad of challenges, and the 15 years of data of the law’s usage demonstrate it works flawlessly.

The results after 20 years of constructing, promoting, and defending the Death with Dignity Act allow us to look forward to a changing landscape around laws allowing assisted death. Washington and Vermont have already adopted laws emulating our model legislation, and other states are poised to follow. Eli’s article concludes:

All in all, the Oregon Death with Dignity Act has survived the scrutiny of two statewide campaigns, two acts of Congress, and two rounds—seven years—of federal court litigation, with many smaller skirmishes along the way. What was once a novel idea has become model legislation, codified in other states. Twenty years after we founded our political committee, we are in the midst of another Oregon summer, and the Oregon Death with Dignity Act is working as expected, with nothing new to report.

Read the entire article on ABA’s GPSolo website.

View full post on Death with Dignity National Center

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