Oregon’s “Death With Dignity” Act Stricken By Federal

AUGUST 28, 1995 VOLUME 3, NUMBER 9

Last November, Oregon voters approved a ballot initiative called the “Oregon Death With Dignity Act.” This first-of-its-kind legislation created a right to physician-assisted suicide in narrowly proscribed circumstances. Predictably, opponents filed suit claiming the Act violates the U.S. Constitution.

Earlier this month a U.S. District Court Judge in Oregon sided with opponents of the Death With Dignity Act. In a nine-page opinion, Judge Hogan ruled that the Act violates the Fourteenth Amendment by denying equal protection of the laws to terminally ill patients who may also be depressed.

Oregon’s law provided a mechanism for securing physician assistance with suicide only when the patient:

  • is terminally ill,
  • initiates the discussion about suicide,
  • waits at least fifteen days, and
  • is examined by another physician on referral by the attending physician.

Judge Hogan’s opinion striking down the Oregon law makes the point that a clinically depressed patient who attempts suicide normally will come under the purview of the state’s civil commitment laws. Under those laws (essentially similar to Arizona’s), the patient would be evaluated by two independent and qualified physicians. If the patient’s suicidal actions appeared to be the result of a mental disorder (including but not limited to depression), the state would intervene and protect the patient from harm, even though the patient may not choose to be so protected.

Under the Death With Dignity Act, however, the determination whether the patient’s wish to die is the product of mental disorder is made by the attending physician and another chosen by the attending physician. This, says Judge Hogan, means that the terminally ill and suicidal patient is not adequately protected from the possibility that he or she might be mentally ill. This is true, according to the Court, because the examination is undertaken by:

  1. One physician and his or her choice of consulting doctor,
  2. Neither of whom is required to be a psychiatrist or trained in dealing with mental illness.

Thus, according to the Federal Court opinion, Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act fails to provide adequate protection for those who are both terminally ill and mentally ill. Consequently, the Act must fail.

The result of this decision is a legal anomaly. In Oregon, where voters adopted a Death With Dignity Act, physician-assisted suicide is not available because of Judge Hogan’s ruling. In Washington state, however, where voters rejected a nearly-identical Death With Dignity Act, another Federal Court ruling has found that physician-assisted suicide must be made available to the same patients.

Stay tuned for further legal developments.

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