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What is Death with Dignity? Oregon passed first-of-its-kind law two decades ago

Since Oregon’s law went into effect, more than 1,500 people have used the prescribed lethal medication to end their lives.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon’s death with dignity law, which allows terminally ill people who meet specific qualifications to end their lives, has been around for more than two decades. It was a first-of-its-kind law in the United States and served as a model for supporters nationwide.

The creation of the law goes back to the 1980s and 1990s, when Oregon state Sen. Frank Roberts introduced several physician-assisted dying bills. He was suffering from prostate cancer at the time and eventually died from it in 1993. His wife was Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts.

The year Frank Roberts died, a group of lawyers and health care workers created the Oregon Right to Die political action committee. They wrote the Death with Dignity Act and got it on the ballot in 1994. Voters passed it by a slim margin.

But the group National Right to Life challenged it in court, and a judge put a hold on the law from actually taking effect.

In 1997, Oregon lawmakers put another measure on the ballot, trying to repeal the act. But voters rejected it and the law finally went into effect, this time with more support from the public.

In the mid-2000s, the Bush administration challenged the law, but it was upheld by the United States Supreme Court.

In 2008, Washington became the second state in the country to pass a Death with Dignity Act. Other states have followed since.

Last year, Gov. Kate Brown signed off on getting rid of a 15-day waiting period for medication for patients who had less than two weeks to live.

To end their life under the death with dignity law, a person must be at least 18 years old, an Oregon resident, capable of making and communicating their own decisions, and diagnosed with a terminal illness that their physician says will lead to death within six months.

State officials release annual reports on how often the law is put to use. Since Oregon’s law went into effect, more than 2,500 people have received prescriptions for the lethal dose of medication. In that same time, 1,657 people had used the medication to end their lives.

"How Did We Get Here?" is a recurring segment on KGW's The Story with Dan Haggerty. The show airs at 6 p.m. Monday-Friday. If there's a story you would like us to dig deeper into, you can email thestory@kgw.com or use the hashtag #HeyDan on Twitter.

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