More people used Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act to end their life in 2018 than in any other year since the law took effect in 1997. Now, state lawmakers are considering proposals that would expand the law to make it easier for someone to seek medical aid in dying.
The conversation can’t come soon enough for Bruce Yelle. He’s a 65-year-old retired construction worker who lives in Florence, Oregon. Seven years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
The diagnosis is why he and his wife moved to Oregon from California. Yelle wanted the option of ending his life using prescription drugs. At the time, California did not offer its residents that choice. Now, California is one of six states, including Oregon, with a law allowing terminally ill people to end their life using medication prescribed by a doctor.
“I want the comfort of knowing I don’t have to have an ugly ending of life,” said Yelle. “Just the comfort of knowing I can have medical aid in dying when my life becomes unbearable.”
The problem for Yelle? The law requires a diagnosis of less than six months to live. Parkinson’s patients can live for years, even as their quality of life and mental capacities deteriorate. The disease can eventually lead to dementia.
Yelle’s afraid he won’t qualify to use the law, even when he no longer has the will to live. Since the Death With Dignity Act requires patients to be mentally competent, Yelle is afraid that his brain will give up long before his body does. “I’m a big boy,” said Yelle, who played football while growing up near Sacramento. “I see what they’re going to do if I get aggressive. They’re going to drug me up and tie me down. I’ve seen that. That’s how they treat people that are aggressive in memory care. I don’t want to take that chance that I’m going to be there.”
Yelle supports a pair of bills in Salem that would loosen the criteria for who can use the Death With Dignity Act. Specifically, the measures would remove a key provision of the law: The part that requires a doctor to diagnose the patient as having less than six months to live. The bills would remove the time limit entirely, and only require that the disease will, at some point in the future, be the cause of the patient’s death.
But the efforts to expand the eligibility criteria for the law are running into some opposition at the state capitol. “We currently support the Death With Dignity Act as it is,” said Matt Whitaker of the Portland-based nonprofit Compassion and Choices. The organization grew out of the original efforts that led to Oregon voters approving the Death With Dignity Act in 1994.
Compassion and Choices supports expanding the law to new states. But Whitaker says the group is not getting behind the effort to drop the requirement for a six-month diagnosis, which he said is a benchmark used by all states with a form of the law.
The problem, said Whitaker, is not who is eligible, but whether those who are eligible can actually use it. “There are people in Oregon currently who meet the criteria of the law as it’s written, who are not able to access it, either because of some of the administrative requirements, or because of lack of education in the state about the law, or because of the fact they receive their health care at a place where physicians are not allowed to participate,” he said.
Ironically, another group that opposes the law’s expansion is Oregon Right to Life. The advocacy group is best known for its anti-abortion stance. But it also fought to block the Death With Dignity Act from taking effect two decades ago.
Oregon Right To Life Director Lois Anderson says the group still opposes the law, even as it fights to essentially keep it intact. “It’s a weird position for us to be in, to say hey, let’s let the law work the way it’s working and not expand it, because we oppose assisted suicide,” she said. “But we certainly don’t want to be in a position where we’re not saying anything about these expansions.”
As the conversations continue at the state capitol, Bruce Yelle is traveling the state trying to drum up support. He and his wife are speaking to groups at retirement homes and libraries. Yelle said he’s financing his efforts with proceeds he got from selling a Babe Ruth autograph.
In Lincoln City, 93-year-old Frank Siegner nodded in agreement as Yelle made his case. “I can tell my mind is really going down now, as far as memory, thinking and doing things,” he said. “I figure I’m going into Alzheimer’s, probably sometime soon.”
Siegner said he’s worried that he’ll live for years without recognizing anyone and needing help for every basic task. He’d support a change to the Death With Dignity Law so that he could get help in ending his life in the early stages of a terminal diagnosis. “It’s my life. Why can’t I have some say-so?” he said.
According to the Oregon Health Authority, 1,459 Oregonians—including 168 in 2018—have ended their life using the Death With Dignity Act since 1997. Nearly 80 percent of the patients were 65 or older, and almost two-thirds of them had been diagnosed with some form of cancer.