Desire for Dignity: Part II

Pioneer of ODDA thinks update is needed

(Editor's note: This is Part II of a threepart series on Oregon's Death With Dignity Act that began in our Feb. 15 issue. As part of Siuslaw News' examination of the act, Derek Humphry, author of New York Times Bestseller "Final Exit," spoke with reporter Mark Brennan about the problems that remain to be addressed in the ODDA some 20 years after its enactment by the Oregon Legislature.) The Oregon Death with Dignity Act (ODDA) took effect in 1998. One of the act's main proponents and a principal author of the legislation was Derek Humphry, who first became involved with the issues surrounding suicide when his wife, Jean, was diagnosed with cancer.
   She ultimately took her own life.
   That was when Humphry started working towards a change in the laws that govern an act that was once narrowly defined as "suicide."
   Though born in England in 1930, Humphry has lived in Oregon since 1986 and his influence on death with dignity has been felt worldwide primarily through his continuing efforts to change the way American culture looks at death.
   Humphry has spent the last 40 years making the case for an individual's right to what now is called "self determination." This term refers to his belief that all people have the inherent right to determine the time and method of their death.
   Humphry's participation in the crafting and selection of the language used in the ODDA was central to coalescing the support needed to put the act before voters.
   His public support of the act was critical to its passage.
   Humphry's well-known and groundbreaking book "Final Exit" makes the moral argument for self determination and provides the intellectual and emotional rationale for the act of "rational suicide."
   "Final Exit" continues to top international sales charts 26 years after its release.
   According to Humphry, he never anticipated the long-lasting effect his work would have.
   "I never expected it to have this kind of impact. I think that 'Final Exit' helped to remove the taboo surrounding self deliverance and it allowed families and friends to quietly and thoughtfully discuss the issue," he said. The subject has become part of a national conversation in the last 20 years.
   "During that time, a great many people have made up their minds, one way or the other. And that's just fine," said Humphry. "I don't expect everyone to agree with my position, but at least now it can be discussed."
   Humphry's work on the ODDA began soon after he moved to Oregon and consisted of trying to craft the country's first legal path to self determination .
   "I pioneered the law in Oregon from 1986 onward, by speaking and writing on the subject. I was part of the team, which passed it in 1994. When we were drawing up the law, I argued for it to be stronger, embracing chosen death by doctor injection and also doctor-assisted suicide," Humphry said. "But I was out voted, thus a more limited , pre-scripted law was offered to the voters and it was passed."
   Humphry said the ODDA has been an important piece in the puzzle that is being assembled across the country and the world to deal compassionately with issues surrounding the irreversibly and hopelessly ill.
   "The very existence of the law and the fact that it has worked without problem and with generally good effect is what I am most pleased about," Humphry said. "That, and the fact that five other states have enacted laws that are based on our law, has had a tremendously good effect on the broader discussion of self deliverance."
   There are, however, elements of the ODDA that Humphry feels should be amended. Specifically, one of the problems highlighted in Part I of this series, "Desire for Dignity," which drew Humphry's attention.
   "I regard the ODDA as a positive step along the way to something more compassionate of a type that would consider the case of Bruce Yelle." Humphry said. "I feel that we need to amend the six-month terminal diagnosis, which is a stumbling block for individuals like Bruce and it would enable more people with degenerative diseases to access the law."
   Humphry felt that the ODDA, while an important first step in the process of self d e t e r m i n a t i o n , was lacking in its scope and inclusivity.
   "Cases like Mr. Yelle's are examples of the ODDA's limitations, and were behind my founding of the Hemlock Society, now called the Final Exit Network," Humphry said, referring to an advice and moral support system for people who fall through the cracks of the ODDA and wish to explore the option of self deliverance.
   While the current political climate doesn't seem to lend itself to revisiting the wording of the ODDA, Humphry hopes that the enactment of other Death with Dignity laws will allow for a review of the Oregon Act and with that review the possibility exists for change moving forward.
   "There is a rising tide of opinion supporting the widening of the present law, but it is getting hardly any support in legal and legislative circles," he said. "I believe that will change in time."
   (Due to the federal President's Day holiday this week, statements from Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Merkley, Rep. Peter DeFazio, State Sen. Arnie Roblan, State Rep. Caddie McKeown and Gov. Kate Brown were not ready for publication before Siuslaw News went to press. Look for those and more information in the final installment of this series in the Wednesday, March 1, issue of Siuslaw News.)

Note: This is part 2 of a 3 part series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.