Oregon's Death With Dignity law last got national attention as part of the "death panel" hysteria in the 2009 healthcare debate.
BT Livermore

AS OREGON'S once-unique law allowing doctors to prescribe fatal drugs to terminal patients has spread to other states, the Catholic Church has put Oregon in its crosshairs. In a major summit last month, and in an editorial penned last week, Catholic bishops took aim at Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, calling it an "immoral" law that pushes people to suicide.

Oregon voters passed the Death with Dignity Act by a slim margin in 1994, becoming the first state in the nation to allow terminal patients to choose to die by ingesting toxic prescriptions. For 14 years, Oregon was an oddity. But in 2008, Washington State passed a similar law and Montana followed suit in 2009. Numerous state-based campaigns across the country are using Oregon's law as a model for their own death-with-dignity legislation.

Fearing that momentum, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops made what they call "physician-assisted suicide" a top priority during their annual summit in June. From there, the bishops issued their first-ever major statement on doctor-aided dying and it had no kind words for Oregon. If Oregon's model spreads across the country, the nation will see a "radical change," wrote the bishops, with patients urged to end their lives as a cost-saving measure.

Portland Archbishop John Vlazny followed up last week with a scathing editorial in the Catholic Sentinel: "Here in Oregon many of our fellow citizens, sad to say, have been deluded into confronting the dying process in a manner unworthy of our human dignity."

Only a few dozen Oregonians actually use the law every year (525 patients in the state have died due to drugs prescribed under the law) but it has very high support among voters. In a June poll conducted by a Regence nonprofit, 77 percent of Oregonians said they had a favorable view of death with dignity. And a whopping 95 percent said patients should be able to choose their end-of-life care options, including deciding when they die.

A Republican effort in the legislature this year to require all death-with-dignity patients to undergo psychiatric evaluation itself died an undignified death, unable to even receive a hearing.

National death-with-dignity backer Compassion and Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee says Oregon's "aid in dying" law is unlikely to go away, but that the Catholic Church is one of the main opponents to similar laws nationally.

"No state legislature has ever adopted a legal framework for aid in dying, and that's largely due to the legal power of Catholic conferences," says Lee. California's assembly passed an assisted suicide act in 2007, but it never became law, says Lee, due to church pressure on legislators. "Legislators got notes from Catholic school children, saying, 'Please don't kill my grandma.' The political calculus is quite different in Oregon than it is anywhere else that doesn't have experience with aided dying."