Earlier this week in Gideonse v. Brown, Oregon officials agreed not to enforce residency requirements in the state’s physician-assisted suicide law. This means that Oregon has opened its suicide industry to any out-of-state adult who meets capacity and terminal illness “safeguards.” As Americans United Life recently argued in a friend-of-the-court brief before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, capacity and terminal illness safeguards are nominal, and cannot adequately protect patients seeking lethal drugs. By not enforcing its residency requirements, Oregon has weakened the law’s so-called protection and become the first state to expand its assisted suicide law to non-residents.
Exacerbating the Mental Health Crisis
This case will exacerbate the rampant problems of doctor shopping and inadequate mental health counseling. Suicide assistance often occurs with a stranger, not one’s primary care doctor. According to 2021 official Oregon assisted suicide data, the median duration of the physician-patient relationship was five weeks. In the same year, doctors wrote 383 lethal prescriptions, but only referred two individuals for mental health evaluations, which is just .5% of patients receiving prescriptions. Yet studies have shown 25-50% of patients seeking lethal drugs suffer from depression.
Legal Consequences of Oregon’s Lethal Drugs
Oregon has thrown its assisted suicide law into a legal morass. Most states prohibit assisted suicide. If a resident comes from one of those states, there may be legal consequences for family and friends that help the patient travel to Oregon to receive lethal drugs. Assisted suicide may adversely affect an out-of-state resident’s will, contracts, or insurance policies. Finally, there may be legal issues if a patient returns to her home state to ingest the drugs after obtaining the lethal medication in Oregon.
As part of the settlement agreement, the Oregon Health Authority will formally request that the state legislature remove the residency requirements from the law. In the meantime, certain state executive officials and the District Attorney of Multnomah County have agreed to not enforce the residency requirements. Other county district attorneys, however, may still enforce the residency requirements, thus creating legal uncertainty about criminal liability.
Assisted suicide ultimately exploits vulnerable patients and fosters disability discrimination. Suicide is not medicine, and this case will have tragic consequences for patients.