In 2016 133 people were assisted to die in Oregon, consistent with the 135 people who were assisted in 2015. This brings the total number of assisted deaths in Oregon over the last 20 years to 1,127, just 0.19% of the total number of deaths in Oregon over the same period. No cases were referred to the Oregon Medical Board for failure to comply with the law’s robust safeguards.
The overwhelming majority (90%) of people who complete a request for assisted dying in Oregon are enrolled in hospice care.
This disproves speculation that legalisation of assisted dying will somehow undermine the development of end-of-life care.
Indeed, the Oregon Hospice Association, once opposed to assisted dying, now recognises that law change has increased the quantity and quality of conversations around death and dying. Assisted dying and end-of-life care go hand in hand, something we will be exploring in more detail at an upcoming event in Belfast.
The end-of-life concerns most frequently cited by those who have an assisted death are loss of autonomy, being less able to engage in activities that make life enjoyable and loss of dignity. These concerns reflect individuals’ own judgements of the nature of their suffering. Nobody has the right to determine that these concerns are invalid or that they provide justification to talk somebody out of a request for assisted dying.
In Oregon dying people are empowered to decide for themselves how and when they die – they are the only people qualified to make such decisions. This is what person-centred care looks like.
Opponents clutching at straws
The biggest criticism of Oregon that staunch opponents of assisted dying have been able to muster is that the method of reporting leaves questions unanswered.
A perfect example of this can be seen in a query as to why some physicians wrote more than one prescription for life-ending medication. Opponents are quick to conclude that this means the majority of doctors in Oregon are unwilling to participate in assisted dying.
This ignores the fact that in 2016, 102 doctors wrote prescriptions, the second highest figure since the law changed. It also fails to recognise that many doctors are prevented from being able to support their patients because some hospitals have chosen to forbid their employees from taking part.
The fact that those who have campaigned passionately to restrict end-of-life choice are engaging with the detail of the assisted dying process is encouraging, even if their points are somewhat misguided.
It is quite clear that the argument is won.
There is now only one side of the debate that is volunteering facts and evidence, the other side is choosing to pose hypothetical questions not grounded in reality.
Those opposed to law change are clutching at straws. They can no longer claim that assisted dying will lead to a ‘slippery slope’ or vulnerable people might be harmed by legislation – the mountain of evidence we have from overseas renders these claims illogical.
That is why legislators in Washington State, Vermont, California, Colorado, Washington DC and Canada have all taken note of the Oregon experience and changed the law.
Parliament must take notice
Next month, a supporter of ours in the House of Lords (Baroness Jay of Paddington) will ask the Government what it has made of these overseas developments.
It will be interesting to hear the Government’s response given that the status quo in this country cannot be held up as a satisfactory alternative to law change.
More people than ever are being forced to travel abroad to be assisted to die and those that can’t afford to or are physically unable to do so are taking matters into their own hands, or facing the prospect of enduring suffering against their wishes in their final weeks and days.
It is for these reasons that Noel Conway is courageously challenging the existing law through the Courts, another development the Government will be forced to keep an eye on.
The ground that those opposed to law change have retreated to is looking increasingly unstable. As arguments against assisted dying continue to crumble, pressure is mounting to give dying people in this country the same choices that others around the world have available to them. We will continue to fight alongside you, our supporters, to make sure that happens.