Oregon voters November 4 strongly reaffirmed their support of doctor-assisted suicide on the same day the state attorney general’s office said the original law is now in effect.
The vote and the legal interpretation mean a person who is mentally competent and diagnosed as having less than six months to live could request a lethal prescription from a doctor immediately, wait the required 15 days, then take the drugs.
Supporters of the law applauded the vote as a victory for Oregonians and for personal autonomy. But opponents expressed grave disappointment and hinted they again might challenge the law in the courts.
Partial returns showed voters firmly defeating Measure 51, a legislative referral that would have repealed Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, approved by voters in 1994 as Measure 16.
Oregon remains the only place in the world where doctor-assisted suicide is legal.
“It really says a lot about how carefully Oregonians vote and how much they wanted this,” said Barbara Coombs Lee, who helped write the 1994 initiative and led the anti-repeal campaign.
Dr. William Toffler, head of Physicians for Compassionate Care, a group of doctors favoring repeal, said the vote would put “the poor, the vulnerable, the weak and the aged” at risk. It has profound complications for the whole world,” he said. “It’s a profound paradigm shift for the practice of medicine.”
The repeal campaign spent almost $4 million to persuade voters to get rid of the law.
Much of the support came from the Roman Catholic Church and Oregon Right to Life.
“This vote fundamentally rejects God’s precious gift of life and violates the inalienable right to life,” said Bob Castagna, executive director of the Oregon Catholic Conference.
David Schuman, Oregon’s deputy attorney general, determined November 4 that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals one week previously, had lifted an injunction keeping Measure 16 from going into effect.
Although the law is in effect, Lee said she did not expect a terminally ill patient to request a lethal prescription immediately.
“To think that people are waiting with bated breath to take advantage of this is a sensationalist way of looking at this,” Lee said. “This is a very personal and private thing. This is not something people know about. It’s just not a public event.”
A second legal challenge is expected, but assisted-suicide opponents were not discussing specifics in early November.
James Bopp, the lawyer for plaintiffs in the lawsuit and an attorney for National Right to Life, said he might file another lawsuit of behalf of “a son or daughter who has a mother or father who is terminally ill, depressed and suicidal.”
Bopp also refiled his original lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Eugene. That is where U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, who granted the injunction, presides.
In addition to the courts, attention focuses on the Oregon medical field, which will be responsible for implementing the doctor-assisted suicide law. Also, the Legislature might hold a special session to refine the law.
Some lawmakers who led the push for the repeal referral said changes would be difficult.
“It’s hard overturning the will of the people,” said Sen. Marylin Shannon, R-Brooks.
Flanked by volunteers and a crowd of about 100, Lee proclaimed the election a mandate.
“This is a turning point for the death with dignity movement nationwide,” she said.
“It is a victory not because we won, but because we’ve proved the citizens of a state can band together and beat a well organized political machine.”