Oregon (1997- )

Oregon’s 26 year experiment, which is limited to assistance to suicide, raises a particular concern as there was no witness known to be present in nearly half the cases in which the lethal poison was ingested.

It may have been administered to them by a family member or other person under duress, surreptitiously or violently. The design of this assisted suicide scheme means that we can never know. 

What we do know is that assistance to suicide is being requested more for existential reasons, including feeling a burden on family and friends (59.2% of cases in 2019) than because of any concern about inadequate pain control (mentioned by 28.8% of people overall).

Oregon’s Dying With Dignity Act which allows medical practitioners to prescribe lethal drugs to a person to use to commit suicide came into force on 27 October 1997.

Oregon publishes annual reports on the operation of the Dying With Dignity Act.  Although the data is limited, a careful analysis of the 26 annual reports published to date reveals significant issues with the practice of physician assisted suicide in Oregon.

Increase in number of deaths

The number of deaths from ingesting lethal substances prescribed under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act reached 367 in 2023 continuing a steady rise at an average growth of 15% per annum. These deaths in 2023 accounted for 0.82% of all deaths in Oregon that year (up 20.6% from 2022).

Pain is not a major issue but “being a burden” is

The Oregon annual reports indicate that pain is not a major issue for those requesting physician assisted suicide.  Just over one in four (28.8%) of those who have died from ingesting a lethal dose of medication since 1997 mentioned a concern about pain control (they were not necessarily experiencing pain) as a reason for requesting assisted suicide.

However, in 2019 more than twice that number (59.2%) cited concerns about being a Burden on family, friends/caregivers.

Mental health: No adequate screening

Research by Linda Ganzini has established that one in six people who died under Oregon’s law had clinical depression. Depression is supposed to be screened for under the Act. 

However, in 2023 only 3 out of 367 (0.8%) of those who died under the Oregon law were referred by the prescribing doctor for a psychiatric evaluation before writing a script for a lethal substance.

Over the 26 years of legalised assistance to suicide it is likely that around 397 people with clinical depression were prescribed and took a lethal poison without being referred for a psychiatric evaluation.

Financial considerations             

Of those who died from ingesting a lethal dose of medication in 2023, nearly one in twelve (8.2%) mentioned the “financial implications of treatment” as a consideration.

In two notorious cases, those of Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup, the Oregon Health Plan informed a patient by letter that the particular cancer treatment recommended by their physicians was not covered by the Plan but that the cost of a lethal prescription to end their life would be covered.

The misleading notion of a rapid and peaceful death

The lethal drugs prescribed for assisted suicide do not always result in a swift and peaceful death.

In 2023 there were ten cases of complications out of 102 (9.8%) of those for whom information about the circumstances of their deaths is available. This included 8 cases of difficulty ingesting or regurgitating the poison; one case of seizures and one unspecified complication. 

The interval from ingestion of lethal drugs to unconsciousness has been as long as 8 hours and 8 minutes (in 2023). 

The time from ingestion to death has been as long as 137 hours (5 days and 17 hours), for a person in 2023. One in 15 people take more than 6 hours to die.

Nine people have regained consciousness after ingesting the lethal medication, including one patient in 2010 who regained consciousness 88 hours (3 days 16 hours) after ingesting the medication, subsequently dying from the underlying illness three months later.  

Faulty prognosis

The Death With Dignity Act provides that before prescribing a lethal substance a doctor must first determine whether a person has a “terminal disease”.  This is defined as “an incurable and irreversible disease that has been medically confirmed and will, within reasonable medical judgment, produce death within six months”. 

However, in 2023, 4.3% of those who died from a lethal ingestion had outlived their supposed six month prognosis.

Of course, for those who ingested the lethal substance within six months of requesting it we can never know if they may also have lived longer.

In 2022 one person ingested lethal medication 1859 days (5 years 1 month) after the initial request for the lethal prescription was made, setting a new record for the longest duration between initial request and ingestion which was previously 1503 days (4 years 4½ months).

This also means that any assessment of competence made at the time of prescribing the lethal substance is well out of date - the person may well have become incompetent to make a decision to ingest the lethal substance for the purpose of causing their own death. 

Not a terminal illness

There have been a total of 38 people for whom the “underlying illness” has been listed as “Endocrine/metabolic disease [e.g., diabetes]”. 

Arthritis, arteritis, stenosis and sclerosis (none of which are usually terminal illnesses) have also been recorded as the underlying illness justifying assisted suicide, as well as, in 2019, "complications from a fall" (a very imprecise statement of a medical condition).

In 2021, anorexia was first reported as a medical condition for which a lethal poison was prescribed and ingested to cause death.

Clearly even the central requirement that an illness be terminal may not be strictly applied.

Short relationship with attending physicians

The Oregon statute specifies that lethal prescriptions only be written by a person’s “attending physician” who is defined as “the physician who has primary responsibility for the care of the patient and treatment of the patient's terminal disease.”

The data indicates that in some cases doctors have had a relationship with the patient of less than one week’s duration and that in 2023, in half the cases the doctor-patient relationship was of 6 weeks duration or less.

Same day death on request

Prior to 1 Jan 2020, the Oregon law required a period of 15 days between a first request for a lethal prescription and the supply of the lethal dose. Now an exemption from this requirement can be claimed if the attending physician (who may have just met the person and who is not required to have any expertise in the person’s condition) states that the person is reasonably expected to live fewer than 15 days from the first request.

Doctors claimed this exemption for 154 people in 2023 – representing 46% of all deaths from assistance to suicide from lethal prescriptions written in 2023.

The length of time from first request to death by ingestion of the lethal poison is reported to range from 0 days to 1633 days in 2023 – so some people asked for assistance to suicide and suicided with the lethal poison on the very same day. 

This gives no time to explore other responses to a request for assisted suicide before a person is dead by a prescribed lethal poison.

Who administers the lethal poison?

In 2023 a physician or other healthcare provider was known to be present at the time the person died from ingesting the lethal substance in less than 3 out of 10 cases (29.4%). This means that in more than 7 out of 10 cases (70.6%) of cases there was no physician or other healthcare provider known to be present at the time of death, and there is no data available on complications for these cases.

In 2023 in 107 cases (out of 367) there was a “volunteer” present at the time of ingestion. These are apparently “Client Volunteers” provided by a non-government organisation - End of Life Choices Oregon. According to their job description they “may be present at a planned death [and] prepare medication for self-administration by the client [which] includes opening drug capsules and/or mixing medication with fluid.”

This still leaves 152 out of 367 cases (41.4%) cases where there is therefore no evidence that the person took the lethal substance voluntarily. It may well have been administered to them by a family member or other person under duress, surreptitiously or violently. We can never know.


Oregon’s 26 year experiment with an assisted suicide law, far from providing a model that other jurisdictions should follow, serves as a warning that such a law cannot guarantee that all deaths from assistance to suicide are either voluntary or peaceful, or limited to those who actually meet the eligibility criteria. 

Download a booklet on Oregon 

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  • Roger Pym
    commented 2021-04-28 12:13:49 +1000
    why is there a problem with the drugs used??? Vets assist our animal companions to die – why can’t humans take the same treatment. ????
  • Roger Pym
    commented 2021-04-28 12:11:44 +1000
    It sounds like Oregon’s assisted suicide is out of control and poorly – to say the least – administered. Assisted surely should mean someone be with the person at the time of ending their life. I am a supporter of assisted termination of life but Oregon is a mess.
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