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Death with Dignity and People with Disabilities

127.805 s.2.01. Who may initiate a written request for medication.

(1) An adult who is capable, is a resident of Oregon, and has been determined by the attending physician and consulting physician to be suffering from a terminal disease, and who has voluntarily expressed his or her wish to die, may make a written request for medication for the purpose of ending his or her life in a humane and dignified manner in accordance with ORS 127.800 to 127.897.

(2) No person shall qualify under the provisions of ORS 127.800 to 127.897 solely because of age or disability. [1995 c.3 s.2.01; 1999 c.423 s.2]

Disability conditions alone are irrelevant under death with dignity laws.

When the laws state that “no person shall qualify…solely because of…disability,” it means that being disabled does not qualify anyone to participate in the law and that disability alone does not make one eligible for the law.

No person shall qualify under the provisions of [the Oregon Death with Dignity Act] solely because of age or disability.

Oregon Death with Dignity Act, ORS 127.805 s.2.01.(2)
The chief criterion to qualify for a prescription of medication under existing death with dignity laws is terminal illness that will lead to death within six months. Other criteria include being an adult resident of a state that has such a law and being mentally competent, i.e. capable of making and communicating your healthcare decisions. You must also must be able to self-administer and ingest the prescribed medication.

A person shall not be considered a “qualified individual” under the provisions of this part solely because of age or disability.

Unrepresentative Concerns About Oregon’s Physician-Assisted Dying Law

Our friend Joan Tollifson, a former disability rights activist who writes and teaches on disability issues, has written that,

“much of the opposition to physician-assisted dying comes from disability rights activists who falsely assume that legalizing the right to die poses a danger to them and undermines the value of their lives. I understand from my own life experience where these fears come from. But in the case of right-to die legislation, I feel that these concerns are enormously exaggerated and actually quite paranoid and misinformed. Those disability groups who are siding with the religious right on this issue don’t speak for all of us with disabilities.”

Paul Spiers, president of Autonomy Now, an organization that, until his death, advocated “for persons with disabilities who expect choice in all aspects of their lives, including choice at the end of life,” too has pointed out that organizations voicing concerns on behalf of people with disabilities about death with dignity legislation do not represent all people with disabilities: “a vocal few do not speak for a majority of the disability community.”

In a rebuke to the assumption that people with disabilities do not support the right-to-die legislation Tollifson wrote, “Many elders and people with disabilities very much want physician-assisted dying to be legalized.”

According to Spiers, “Polls show a majority of the disability community favors passage of laws providing choice at the end of life.”

People with Disabilities and Their Champions Support Death with Dignity

A Voice from Oregon

Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts (1991-1995), who is the mother of a son with autism and whose husband used a wheelchair at the end of his life, was a parent-lobbyist for the people with disabilities for more than 25 years before she entered politics. Governor Roberts has been a strong supporter of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act: she endorsed Measure 16, which enacted the Oregon Death with Dignity Act in 1994, , both in office and to this day. In a 2008 Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed, “I-1000 is not a slippery slope,” she wrote:

Let me state emphatically, I would never support a law that was harmful to individuals with disabilities. This proposed law is not a slippery slope that threatens those with disabilities of any kind.

—Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts, 2008

A Voice from Washington, D.C.

A board member, from 1997 to 2002, of our predecessor organization, Oregon Death with Dignity, Andrew I. Batavia, quadriplegic since teen age, dedicated his adult life and an illustrious career to advocating for people with disabilities. In 2002, Batavia founded Autonomy, Inc., a now-defunct nonprofit “representing people with disabilities who wanted choices and control over their lives, including end-of-life decisions” (Paul Spiers was Autonomy’s executive director after Andrew Batavia). Using the principle of personal autonomy, he and the organization continued advocating for the right of terminally ill people with disabilities to make their own end-of-life decisions, including choosing physician-assisted death.

People with disabilities who support the right [to die], including myself, focus primarily on the autonomy and self-determination of the individual with a disability.

—Andrew I. Batavia

A Voice from California

Sacramento resident Russ Kletzing, blind since shortly after birth and a former President of the National Federation of the Blind, wrote in a 2007 legislative testimony supporting a proposed physician-assisted dying bill:

As a former leader in the disability rights movement and as an individual with a disability, I strongly support AB 374. While I understand that there is fear around this law for some, it is not a fear based on fact. Oregon’s terminal patients, and elderly citizens, have better end of life choices and care than California’s. The rhetoric from opponents who promote intolerance undermines the principles of autonomy and diversity that have been the foundation of the disability rights movement.

A Voice from New Jersey

In a November 30, 2018 op-ed at, attorney Ed Barocas, writing as a person with a disability about the proposed New Jersey Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act, demolishes multiple arguments against death with dignity

As someone who has a disability, something that concerns and in fact offends me is the contradictory notion that in order to protect people with illness or disability, we need to paternalistically limit their right to make decisions and prevent them from having options.

What this bill actually does is value each individual’s autonomy to make their own medical decision in every way possible. It also ensures these decisions are completely voluntary, while protecting terminally ill individuals yearning for self-determination at life’s inevitable end.

Oregon Death with Dignity Act and People with Disabilities

In a 2007 peer-reviewed study, “Legal Physician-Assisted Dying in Oregon and the Netherlands: Evidence Concerning the Impact on Patients in “Vulnerable” Groups,” published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, the authors, including Dr. Linda Ganzini and Dr. Peggy Battin, found that “there is no current evidence for the claim that legalised physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia will have disproportionate impact on patients in vulnerable groups,” among which they included people with disabilities. In other words, research shows no heightened risk, or, in fact, no instances, of abuse of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act as it relates to people with disabilities (or in any other way).

On the contrary, “[t]hose who received physician-assisted dying in the jurisdictions studied appeared to enjoy comparative social, economic, educational, professional and other privileges,” a finding confirmed by annual reports on the use of the Death with Dignity Act issued by the Oregon Health Authority. People who use the Act are, generally, not among the oppressed or vulnerable.

In a 2007 testimony before the American Public Health Association, Robert Joondeph, Executive Director of Disability Rights Oregon (formerly Oregon Advocacy Center), stated that the only complaints his organization had received in relation to the state’s Death with Dignity Act “focused on the concern that the Act might discriminate against persons with disabilities who would seek to make use of the Act but have disabilities which would prevent self administration, thereby denying these persons the ability to use the Dignity Act.”

Joondeph confirmed that he had “no personal knowledge of cases in Oregon that contradict the findings in” the above JME study. In addition:

Disability Rights Oregon has never received a complaint that a person with disabilities was coerced to make use of the [Oregon Death with] Dignity Act.

Bob Joondeph, Executive Director, Disability Rights Oregon

In a 2016 update, Joondeph wrote that DRO “has still not received a complaint of exploitation or coercion of an individual with disabilities in the use of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.”

Note: This page combines content from Joan Tollifson’s blog post about the issue, our handout from our Yes on I-1000 campaign for the Washington Death with Dignity Act, and referenced sources.