Looking Back, Moving Forward: 25 Years of Death with Dignity in Oregon

—Eli Stutsman

Groups in other states had tried and failed to pass ballot measures. In 1991, voters in Washington state rejected a ballot initiative that would have legalized voluntary euthanasia; Californians defeated a similar measure the following year. [3][4][5][6][7][8]

Despite the groups’ laudable work, Stutsman and others knew euthanasia was a non-starter. The group’s members realized that in order to combat the fears and rhetoric about “mercy killings,” the law must call for the patient to self-administer the medication.

Geoff Sugerman and Eli Stutsman

Geoff Sugerman (left) with Eli Stutsman, JD, leader of the Oregon Right to Die PAC and lead author of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.

From the Legislature to the Ballot Box

The late Oregon State Senator Frank Roberts (1916-1993), pictured with his wife, former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts.

Frank Roberts[9] understood this. Before his death in 1993, the longtime Oregon legislator introduced three death with dignity bills. None made it out of committee. The issue was too controversial, and many lawmakers who were supportive feared speaking out for fear it would hurt their prospects for reelection.

The Legislature’s refusal to move a bill convinced advocates that their best chance of success was at the ballot box, where Oregon voters could “enhanc[e] their reputation as Western mavericks,” as the Oregonian wrote in a November 1994 piece about Oregon Right to Die’s campaign.

Facing Opposition

The successful signature-gathering effort earned Oregon Right to Die’s death with dignity measure a place on the November 1994 ballot, as Measure 16. The next four months were critical. [10]

Could the campaign, which in Sugerman’s words started “from less than Square One,” convince the people of Oregon that medical aid in dying was a humane and much-needed option for individuals in the final stages of a terminal illness? Or would voters side with the opposition, led by the well-funded Catholic Church, whose Portland archbishop wrote an op-ed denouncing Measure 16 as “murder without mercy”?

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