Terminally ill Utahns may now have easier access to physician-assisted suicide after the in-state residency requirement was abandoned for Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.

The law allows physicians in Oregon to prescribe lethal, end-of-life medication for terminally ill patients who face a prognosis of living fewer than six months.

What happened

Last October, advocacy group Compassion & Choices filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s residency requirement, saying it “violated the Constitution’s prohibition against states that favor their own residents over noncitizens,” writes The New York Times.

  • The lawsuit was resolved in a settlement filed in U.S. District Court in Portland on Monday, under which the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Medical Board said they will no longer enforce the requirement. They will also ask the Oregon Legislature to remove it from the law.
  • “This requirement was both discriminatory and profoundly unfair to dying patients at the most critical time of their life,” Kevin Diaz, an attorney with Compassion & Choices told The Associated Press.
  • Oregon’s law requires that patients be at least 18 years old, be “capable of making and communicating health care decisions to health care practitioners” and meet other criteria in order to qualify for life-ending medication.
  • Similar laws are in effect in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Vermont, Washington state and Washington, D.C., according to Compassion & Choices. Montana law does not prohibit medical aid in dying, said a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling.
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Understanding the issue

Medically assisted suicide is a complicated — and often emotional — issue for people on both sides. Proponents of “death with dignity” laws say they can relieve weeks or months of suffering for terminally ill patients. Others argue that it’s difficult to accurately predict the course of one’s illness and say end-of-life medication eliminates the potential for extended life.

  • The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Dr. Nicholas Gideonse, a Portland physician who works with patients from nearby Washington state.
  • “The last thing my dying patients needed was to have to find a new doctor during their final days so that they could get the end-of-life care they deserve, just because they happened to live on the north side of the Columbia River,” he said, according to NPR.
  • A National Right to Life spokeswoman, Laura Echevarria, said the settlement “allows for anyone traveling to Oregon to seek assisted suicide.”
  • “We do believe Oregon will become the assisted suicide tourism state,” she said in an email, according to The New York Times, although Diaz said that is not likely to be the case.

What it means for Utah

Utah lawmakers have repeatedly shot down efforts to legalize medically assisted suicide in the state. In February, a House committee voted against HB74, which would have made end-of-life prescriptions legal for some patients.

During a hearing on the bill, Tammy Allred told lawmakers of the suffering her 27-year-old daughter lived through after she was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2020.

“She depended on me to take care of her, get her dressed, feed her, bathe her and do simple things like brushing her teeth and getting her a glass of water. For my daughter, this brought tremendous panic and anxiety — imagine being stuck in your body with no control,” Allred said.

She said her daughter “begged for some kind of relief” from the constant pain and talked of wanting to move to a state “that would allow her to leave the world with dignity on her own terms.”

Oregon’s new policy opens the door for Utahns to receive life-ending prescriptions without permanently relocating, but some think there should be more focus on mental health and other interventions.

Jean Hill, director for the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, has been a longtime opponent of physician-assisted suicide and has shared personal experience with lawmakers in the past.

Her sister was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, but survived six years past her original prognosis.

“She would have missed her grandkids being born. She would have missed so much if she had taken this option,” Hill told the Deseret News on Thursday.

Hill also has concerns with how the change will play out legally, given that under Utah law, physicians can be charged with second-degree felony manslaughter if they “intentionally and knowingly” provide medication to help someone take their own life.

“How is that impacted if the physician isn’t in Utah?” she said.

Although Oregon’s law only applies to terminally ill patients, Hill worries that could change in the future to include other illnesses, both mental and physical. In general, she would like to see more treatments to help ease pain and suffering, adding that “treating the patient doesn’t mean giving the patient the means to kill themselves.”

“Let’s treat the mental health issues, let’s treat the pain issues,” Hill said. “I think what we see ... is most people who seek the medication, it’s not because they’re in pain, it’s because they’re afraid. Let’s deal with the fears because they’re very real and understandable. But there are also things that can be addressed far short of suicide.”