Desire for Dignity: Part III

Despite drawbacks, ODDA unlikely to change

(Editor's note: This is the conclusion of a three-part series focusing on Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, and the gaps within the ODDA that many fall through when it comes to those who can make the choice to die and those who can't under the current rules.) The Oregon Death with Dignity Act (ODDA) was enacted 20 years ago. During that time nearly 2,000 people have used the medications provided by the state to end their lives.
   There are, however, a number of other individuals who were unable to utilize the law to legally end their own lives.
   This is due primarily to the requirements of the act, which mandate that the requesting individual's physician has determined a date specific for their death. The individual requesting the legal right to die must also be judged to be of sound mind at the time of their request.
   As highlighted in the first two parts of this series (Feb. 15 and Feb. 22), there are numerous circumstances that may preclude someone from being able to meet these requirements.
   The choices for these people are less than appealing. They are often left to their own methods to end their lives.
   However, there is one organization that attempts to assist individuals who fall through the gaps in the act. Known as The Final Exit Network, members of the group are put into contact with those suffering a terminal or lifethreatening disease.
   The group's work in assisting those who wish to take their own lives is an illegal act. The "exit guides," as they are known, have undergone extensive training to determine the best methods to help with "self deliverance." There are statebased exit guides who are contacted by residents of their state to assist with suicide.
   These actions, by both the stricken individual and the guide, are also considered illegal under current ODDA rules.
   Oregon's Final Exit Network exit guide is a Portland resident who goes by the name of "Peter."
   For reasons of confidentiality, he was unwilling to go into the specifics of either the procedure used for assisted suicide or the diagnoses that have led individuals to call upon him for assistance in "exiting ." But he was willing to say that he has assisted a number of Oregonians on their final journey .
   Peter also emphasized what he considers the flaws in the ODDA that he feels should be changed.
   "I talk with many people who can't use the ODAA and they need to find other options so they call us," he said.
   The Final Exit Network is the second incarnation of the Hemlock Society, which was founded by one of the authors of the ODDA, Derek Humphry.
   He and others believe that all individuals have the inherent right to determine when the quality of their life has deteriorated to the degree that they no longer wish to continue living.
   Humphry believes the circumstances of Florence resident Bruce Yelle detailed in the first installment of this series (Feb. 15) are real problems that should be addressed at the state level through changes in the ODDA something Humphry doesn't believe is likely to happen . It's a sentiment echoed by State Sen. Arnie Roblan.
   "It will be very difficult to change the law. The final stage diagnoses and the soundness of mind requirements were put in the bill because there was a fear that someone other than the patient would be determining the final question of life or death," said Roblan, who recently lost a family member and understands the difficulty the current law poses to those with an unclear prognosis.
   "Dementia and Alzheimer's were the biggest issues when we crafted the law," Roblan said. "There are also strong religious beliefs that come into play when discussing this issue. This is an instance were religion often trumps the law for a lot of our citizens."
   Hank Stern, an aide to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, responded with a statement that the senator doesn't usually comment on state issues, but said Wyden has defended the ODDA when it has been threatened in the Senate.
   Stern also expressed that Wyden has reservations about Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch's position on the Death with Dignity issue.
   Sen. Jeff Merkley said, "Oregon's Death with Dignity Act is a pioneering contribution to independence and personal autonomy an important right we'll fight to defend." At the congressional level, Merkley is also concerned about how President Trump's Supreme Court nominee could affect the law. "Trump has named a nominee who has argued against death with dignity laws in the past," Merkley said. "But I will lead the charge to defend it."
   While concerns for the preservation of the ODDA loom on the horizon and arguments for needed changes are raised within communities as well the state capitol, Yelle continues with the daily concerns of living a life he may someday choose to end yet he is hopeful that this important conversation will continue.
   "The grassroots response has been so overwhelming. It's blown me away," Yelle said. "When you communicate face to face with people and they read the articles, especially with older people, at least now they are willing to talk about it and that is a big change."
   When asked about what he plans to do when he is confronted by the inevitable, and the ODDA remains an obstacle, Yelle said he will be ready. "I am prepared to take my own life. I will have saved up the medications I need," he said. "I don't want to have to depend on others for all of my needs. I just want to decide my own fate."

Note: This is part 3 of a 3 part series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.