Engaging Allies and Learning the Issue


Three states have laws permitting Death with Dignity: Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Two have positive court decisions determining physicians cannot be prosecuted for prescribing medications to hasten death under certain narrow circumstances: Montana and New Mexico (under appeal). But if you live in another state and you want to help enact a Death with Dignity law, what steps can you take? This is the second in a series of five blog posts about early organizing efforts you can undertake to help pave the way for passing a law in your state.

In the first, I focused on the important first step of talking to your friends, neighbors, and family members about Death with Dignity and end-of-life care policy reform.

One of the interesting things about talking to your colleagues with intent about death and dying issues is you will find strong support in areas you did not even know existed. One political organizer told me she thought our supporters were as dedicated as the most dedicated volunteers in politics (teachers and firefighters are the most dedicated, in case you’re curious).

This main topic in this post is building allies and learning about Death with Dignity. To build a core of dedicated allies, you will need to offer individuals multiple opportunities to engage on the issue. One good way is to host a movie study group about the groundbreaking documentary How to Die in Oregon. Because you are trying to build engagement, you will want to have the group meet more than once to discuss the film.

The film is approximately 90 minutes long, so the first session could last about 3 hours: introductions and mingling, watching the film, and discussion of first impressions. The film is thought-provoking and attendees need some time to process what they have seen before going home. We have developed a discussion guide for the film, and the second session would be an idea time to work through the film methodically. The third session could be reserved for personal storytelling and discussions about Death with Dignity in general.

Remember, the goal of this study group is to engage individuals on the issue politically, so do not get too enmeshed in leading the “perfect” film study group—honest and compelling is important, having the right answer to every question is less so. If your group runs into a question about Death with Dignity you cannot answer, please contact us; we are happy to help you track down accurate information.

Another engagement tool is to hold a study group focused on Oregon’s model legislation. Many pieces of legislation are hard for the lay person to understand because the legal documents are full of political-speak, but the Oregon Death with Dignity Act was written so voters could understand it. It was not written for legislators (or by legislators). With a little focus and guidance, the law is easy to understand—even for a political novice.

Again, a three session group seems the right length. The first could be focused on an overview of the law and the steps to qualify. The outcomes of this event might be a group-designed set of steps for terminally ill individuals to follow with a timeline, a list of underlying principles (what does the law imply, but not state outright), and an overview of what it means to “qualify” for the law.

The second session could focus on professionals and definitions. What do doctors have to do if they want to participate? What if they do not want to participate? The group could undertake the same exercise for nurses, pharmacists, mental health professionals, and healthcare institutions. Eli Stutsman, the co-author of the Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts, frequently says the laws are medical standards of care. This idea could be another focal point for discussion for the group.

The final group meeting could feature discussions about usage patterns in Oregon. The Oregon Health Authority issues annual reports about the law, and an exploration of usage patterns over time and demographics is an interesting exercise. A compelling wrap-up could focus on opponents’ slippery slope arguments, comparing them to the text of the law and factual usage statistics. This exercise can provide an enlightening glimpse into the potential motives of our opponents.

Your goal, again, is not to get everything right or become an expert in the law, but rather to engage like-minded individuals in a long-term volunteer advocacy endeavor. For those individual who stick with you through six group meetings, are there any who want to move ahead with the issue? Are there individuals who are not interested in group activities, but who are interested in helping you move the issue forward? If you have found three or four individuals through this process of individual and group meetings who are as engaged as your are, congratulations, it is time to move onto the next step!

If I can help with group facilitation, please do not hesitate to send me an email or give me a call at 503-228-4415. I would be so pleased to help you in the process of engaging others.

Next Up: Learning about the Technicalities of Ballot Initiatives and Legislative Efforts (And be sure to catch part one in this series, So You Want to Pass a Death with Dignity Law in Your State!)

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