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High-Profile Case Brings New Attention To Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law


Over the weekend, a 29-year-old woman used Oregon's Death with Dignity law to end her life. Brittany Maynard had been diagnosed with inoperable, brain cancer. Doctors told her she had only a few months to live. She moved to the state specifically to take advantage of the law. Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on its history and stipulations.

KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL, BYLINE: When Oregonians first considered the Death with Dignity measure in 1994, opponents predicted thousands would flock here to die, but that's not been the case. The law includes strict requirements including proving residency to two physicians. If either feels you're mentally incompetent, they can ask for psychological evaluation. Also, you have to be an adult, and you have to have a terminal diagnosis with six months or less to live. Oregon State Health Officer, Dr. Katrina Hedberg says many Oregonians find it helpful.

KATRINA HEDBERG: Having discussions about end-of-life care and what the circumstances around a person's death are - having those conversations is important regardless of what you think about the law itself.

FODEN-VENCIL: The law is so well established in Oregon that it's embraced by some religious organizations. Reverend Bill Sinkford is with the First Unitarian Church in Portland. He believes it gives his ill congregants the maximum amount of choice over death.

BILL SINKFORD: I think the most important thing that it gives to them is the sense that they're in control and that sense of control is a great blessing to folks whether they use the medicine or not.

FODEN-VENCIL: Oregon's law specifically requires information about each death to be collected and published each year. So we know, for example, that about two-thirds of those who get the prescription end up using it. George Eighmey sits on the board of the Death with Dignity National Center. He says most of the more than 1,100, who have used the law in Oregon, fit a certain profile.

GEORGE EIGHMEY: First of all, the average age is between 70 and 71 years of age - fiercely independent - cancer is the number one illness the people use the law with.

FODEN-VENCIL: Perhaps, the reason the case of Brittany Maynard has garnered so much attention is that she was so young. Nevertheless, her diagnosis of brain cancer was terminal. For NPR News, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kristian Foden-Vencil