Oregon’s 1994 Death with Dignity Law

How to Die in Oregon

Directed by Peter D Richardson (2011)

Film Review

On September 19, the End of Life Choice Act referendum will be on the ballot in New Zealand. This documentary profiles Oregon’s 1994 Death with Dignity law (enacted by citizens initiated referendum). The latter permits doctors to prescribe a lethal quantity of barbiturates to allow terminal patients to end their lives. Unlike doctor-assisted suicide, patients must be able to self-administer the lethal cocktail. In 1994, Oregon, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were the only jurisdictions that allowed terminal patients to end their lives. As of 2011, a surprisingly small number of Oregon patients had taken their lives under the law.

The film profiles three terminally ill individuals who have secured lethal barbiturate prescriptions after satisfying specific medical criteria and the trained patient advocates who offer reassurance and counseling to all patients in the program. The filmmakers follow one patient and his family through the entire process.

They also interview opponents of right-to-die laws. The most concerning argument against them is the possibility a budget-strapped state will offer state sanctioned suicide as an alternative to expensive treatment regimes and good palliative care. In fact one Oregon patient shows filmmakers a letter from the Oregon Health Plan denying him a second round of chemotherapy and offering assisted suicide as a possible alternative.*

The film also profiles a Washington State woman campaigning for Washington State’s Death with Dignity referendum (approved in 2008), after watching her husband suffer horribly with terminal brain cancer.


*When he goes public with the letter, the OHP decides to allow the chemotherapy.

Anyone with a public library card can view the full film free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine.

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