Reading about the upcoming petition drive to place the Death with Dignity initiative on South Dakota’s 2018 ballot, a South Dakota ex-pat reminds me that Colorado voters passed a similar “medical aid in dying” initiative in November. 64.8% of Colorado voters said Yes to a measure that, like South Dakota’s proposal, is modeled after the first such statute in the nation, enacted in Oregon in 1997. Enacted on December 16, Colorado’s proposal differs from South Dakota’s notably in penalty: while our initiative would make abuse of the law a Class A felony, the most severe level of crime warranting either a life sentence or the death penalty, Colorado’s law makes abuse of the law a Class 2 felony, one step down from their worst crimes, carrying a sentence of 8 to 24 years.
However, as the LRC’s prison cost estimate notes, abuse of death-with-dignity laws is rare. Oregon has seen little evidence of abuse or of the “slippery slope” that opponents fear:
…Now, almost 20 years later, there is little evidence that it has been abused.
Since the passage of the law in 1997, a total of 1545 people have been written prescriptions under the DWD in Oregon, and 991 patients have died from ingesting the lethal medications.
A majority of the patients had cancer, said Charles Blanke, MD, professor of medicine, Knight Cancer Institute, at Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland.
“Users are predominantly elderly, white, and well educated,” he added.
“Almost all patients are in hospice, and almost all take the medications at home after telling loved ones of their decision,” said Dr Blanke, who provided an update on Oregon’s experience here at the Palliative Care in Oncology Symposium (PCOS) 2016 [Roxanne Nelson, “Death with Dignity in Oregon: No Evidence of Abuse or Misuse,” Medscape, 2016.09.20].
Oregon, California, Vermont, Washington, and now Colorado have laws allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs. The District of Columbia approved an aid-in-dying bill that now must receive approval from Congress. Montana doesn’t have a death-with-dignity law, but its supreme court has ruled nothing in state law prevents physician-assisted suicide.