Oregon will no longer require people resident in the state to use its law allowing terminally ill people to receive life-threatening drugs, after a lawsuit challenged the requirement as unconstitutional.
In a settlement filed in U.S. District Court in Portland on Monday, the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Medical Board agreed to stop enforcing the residency requirement and ask the legislature to remove it from the law.
Supporters said they would use the settlement to pressure the other eight states and Washington, DC, with physician-assisted suicide laws, to also drop their residency requirements.
“This requirement was both discriminatory and deeply unfair to patients dying at the most critical time in their lives,” said Kevin Diaz, an attorney at Compassion & Choices, the national advocacy group that sued the requirement. Oregon.
Laura Echevarria, spokeswoman for National Right to Life, which opposes such laws, warned that without residency requirements, Oregon risks becoming the nation’s “assisted suicide tourism capital”.
But Diaz said that was unlikely, given legal safeguards such as timeouts; that it is extremely difficult for terminally ill people to make extended trips to another state; and that many people want to die in the presence of loved ones close to home – not across the country.
“There is no tourism,” Diaz said.
Compassion & Choices filed the lawsuit on behalf of Dr. Nicholas Gideonse, a Portland family physician and associate professor of family medicine at Oregon Health and Science University. A longtime supporter of physician-assisted dying laws, Gideonse had been unable to write terminal prescriptions for patients who live just across the Columbia River in Washington state.
Although Washington has such a law, providers can be hard to find in the southwestern part of the state, where many hospital beds are in healthcare facilities affiliated with religions that prohibit it. Requiring his patients to find other doctors to help them end their lives can add to their suffering, Gideonse said.
“Any restriction on medical assistance in dying that doesn’t serve a specific medical purpose is difficult,” Gideonse said Monday. “My practice is by no means limited to Oregon residents, whether it’s past childbirths or other care I provide.”
The lawsuit argued that the residency requirement violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the right to regulate interstate commerce, and the Privileges and Immunities Clause, which prohibits states from discriminating against citizens of other states in favor of their own citizens.
The Oregon Health Authority and medical board declined to comment on why they settled the case. The state attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to an interview request.
Enacted in 1997, Oregon’s first law allows terminally ill people with less than six months to live to end their lives by voluntarily taking lethal drugs prescribed by a physician for this purpose.
Patients must make two verbal requests to their doctor for the drug, at least 15 days apart, as well as a signed written request in the presence of two witnesses. The treating physician and a consulting physician should confirm the patient’s diagnosis and prognosis and determine whether the patient is capable of making health care decisions; if either physician believes the patient is suffering from depression or another mental disorder, they may refer the patient for psychological examination.
Some 2,159 people have died after ingesting terminally ill drugs under the law since it took effect, according to data released last month by the Oregon Health Authority.
California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Vermont, Washington State and Washington, DC have approved similar laws, all with residency requirements. The Montana Supreme Court has ruled that state law does not prohibit medical assistance in dying.
National Right to Life is concerned that people could travel to Oregon without having much contact with a doctor in the state, eliminating the use-limiting guardrails in the law, Echevarria said.
“The hope is that doctors will continue to assess patients, but it certainly creates a situation where there could be more abuse of this law,” she said.
Johnson reported from Seattle.