On Oct. 27, 1997, Oregon made history as the first state in the country to pass a Death with Dignity Act, which makes physician-assisted suicide. As the 20th anniversary of that law draws near, a look at the statistics shows that a great many people have used the law to end their suffering. The law allows terminally ill patients to request death rather than continue with treatments that may or may not help them.

In 2017 alone, 143 people made use of the Death with Dignity Act to end their lives. Of those people, 77% had been fighting some form of cancer. While the average age of patients was 74, as many as 80% were at least 65 years old. Additionally, the vast majority were white and almost half were educated with a B.A. or a higher degree.

Additionally, research has found that the decision to end their lives was a difficult one for each patient to make and only came as a last resort. When asked why they had made the decision, 88% of individuals said they were no longer to engage in simple activities that made their lives worthwhile. More than 87% also said that a loss of autonomy influenced the decision, while 67% said they felt as though their condition took away their dignity. As many as 55% of patients also explained that they didn’t want to be a continued burden on their loved ones.

Protesting Death with Dignity
In spite of the peace that this option in Oregon has brought to many patients, some are not happy with the law. Diane Coleman heads up the organization called Not Dead Yet, a group which views the Death with Dignity Act as discrimination against the elderly and the ill. Coleman says the law devalues the quality of life of the elderly by making the choice to die a part of our healthcare system.

Diane is also concerned with the implications the option presents in how the patient dies. Once the lethal medication has been provided, Ms. Coleman fears that any family member might administer it. She says this implies the patient may or may not have given consent.

Similarly, Diane suggests the patient may choose to die out of consideration for the rest of his or her family. The patient may no longer want to be a burden, or to inconvenience their loved ones, so that may motivate them to administer the lethal medication.

In ordinary suicide prevention, Coleman says those who attempt suicide do so for the same reasons cited by participants in the Death by Dignity survey. For Diane, there is no distinction between suicide and physician-assisted suicide. Regardless of the motivation, Diane Coleman and her organization, Not Dead Yet, want to see suicide eliminated as an option in healthcare.