By Chris Haring

Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act inspired similar laws in multiple states, ensuring patients’ access to expanded end-of-life options like medical aid in dying.

Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act has fundamentally improved the landscape of end-of-life care in the United States. As The Guardian’s Chris McGreal recently wrote, this pioneering law has set the standard for compassionate and autonomous end-of-life options.

The history and impact of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act

Oregon voters passed the state’s Death with Dignity Act in a 1994 ballot measure. Notably, we formed Death with Dignity after the law passed, with many of the same people who were part of the original Oregon campaign still active in the organization today.

Since the law went into effect in 1997, 2,837 terminally ill people with just months to live have used the law to end their lives using a prescription for life-ending medication that they self-administer. The number of people using the law to end their lives continues to grow each year, with 367 choosing medical aid in dying in 2023, representing less than 1% of deaths in Oregon.

Along the way, the law has survived a second referendum, attempts to kill it in the US Congress, and a challenge in the federal Supreme Court. Ten US states and Washington DC now allow physician-assisted dying similar to the Oregon law, and a dozen more are debating bills to legalize it. Meanwhile, support for assisted dying in the state has risen to the point where the majority of both the public and elected officials back the practice.

Ann Jackson: from opposition to aid-in-dying advocacy

Three decades ago, former Oregon Hospice Association Chief Executive Ann Jackson voted twice against the first assisted dying law. Initially, she believed that comprehensive hospice care could address all end-of-life needs. 

However, her perspective shifted after witnessing the suffering of two partners who succumbed to cancer. As Jackson explains, “[O]nce it went into effect and I saw how it worked, I changed my mind. I came to realize this is about choice. Someone should be able to decide for themselves when to die.”

Now, Jackson, who has multiple sclerosis and scleroderma, finds comfort in knowing the Death with Dignity law is available if she ever needs it. “I get times when I’m not able to see. That’s an MS thing. I have been in a position where I wasn’t able to walk. My fingers don’t work,” she said. “It’s comforting to know the law is there.”

Oregon’s law continues to grow in influence as more states consider adopting similar measures, demonstrating a shift toward recognizing the importance of dignity and choice in end-of-life options. 

For more information on the history and progression of Death with Dignity in Oregon, please visit our website’s state page.