Bioethics Blogs

20 Years of Death with Dignity in USA

The nation’s first “death with dignity” law turns 20 this year.  Since the six other states have affirmatively legalized medical aid in dying.


A new analysis published in JAMA Oncology is taking a look back at how the law has been utilized in Oregon since it went into effect in 1997. 

  • Total Usage – A total of 1545 prescriptions were written, and 991 patients died by using legally prescribed lethal medication. 
  • Age & Gender – Of the 991 patients, 509 (51.4%) were men and 482 (48.6%) were women. The median age was 71 years (range, 25-102 years). 
  • Increase – The number of prescriptions written increased annually (from 24 in 1998 to 218 in 2015), and the percentage of prescription recipients dying by this method per year averaged 64%. 
  • Diagnoses – Of the 991 patients using lethal self-medication, 762 (77%) recipients had cancer, 79 (8%) had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, 44 (4.5%) had lung disease, 26 (2.6%) had heart disease, and 9 (0.9%) had HIV. 
  • Mental Health Screening – Of 991 patients, 52 (5.3%) were sent for psychiatric evaluation to assess competence. 
  • Race & Hospice – Most (953; 96.6%) patients were white and 92.2% were in hospice care. 
  • Insurance & Education – Most (118, 92.2%) patients had insurance and 92 (70.8%) had at least some college education. Most (94%) died at home. 
  • Duration – The estimated median time between medication intake and coma was 5 minutes (range, 1-38 minutes); to death it was 25 minutes (range, 1-6240 minutes). 
  • Complications – Thirty-three (3.3%) patients had known complications. 
  • Motivation – The most common reasons cited for desiring PAD were activities of daily living were not enjoyable (89.7%) and losses of autonomy (91.6%) and dignity (78.7%); inadequate pain control contributed in 25.2% of cases.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.