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When 74-year old Ben Wald decided to end his life, he did it with full state approval and the assistance of his wife and doctor. The retired social worker had stage-four lymphatic cancer with less than six months to live. Having dwindled down to 118 pounds (53.5 kilograms) and weakened by his long bout with illness, he informed his wife that he wanted to end his life. According to his wife Pam, "It was very difficult to do, but I listened. I told him I supported him, and I said I’d be there all the way."
Under Oregon's Death With Dignity Act (DWDA) which was passed in 1997, assisted suicide is legal providing that the patient is terminally ill, is of sound mind, and makes two requests to a doctor for assistance with suicide at least fifteen days apart. The patient then has to make a written request signed by two witnesses. Two doctors also need to confirm a prognosis of having less than six months to live and patients are required to be informed of alternatives such as hospice care.
Despite attempts to repeal the legislation and opposition from dissenting doctors and religious organizations, hundreds of terminally patients have used the DWDA to end their own lives. For patients like Ben Ward, finding a participating physician is often the hardest part since many are reluctant to get involved in assisted suicides. At present, there are only 61 partipating physicians in the entire state of Oregon, most of them living in the city of Portland. For people like the Walds, this can mean repeated trips over long distances to meet DWDA guidelines for assisted suicides.
Although organizations such as Compassion and Choices provide end-of-life consultations for patients interested in ending their lives, filling out the required paperwork and finding a willing physician still took time for the Walds. The lethal dose prescription cost $500 and required a two-hour drive to a pharmacy near Portland by a family friend. Ben Wald took the barbituate dose a day later with family and friends gathered at his bedside. After a few final words with his spouse, he stopped breathing.
Since her husband's death, Pam Wald has been an outspoken advocate of doctor-assisted suicide and is working to "break down the barriers" that she and her husband faced as he tried to end his life. Despite fears that right-to-die legislation will be misused with people being "coerced" into death by their heirs, there is little real evidence that this is the case. Oregon's DWDA legislation is intended to give terminally ill people a chance to reconsider their decision to end their lives though this can make assisted suicide difficult in many cases.
Despite numerous legal challenges, Oregon's Death With Dignity Act remains in force with 77 people in Oregon committing suicide in the past year alone. For many other jurisdictions, including here in Canada, the legal fight for doctor-assisted suicide continues. While Quebec seems resolved to pass Bill 52 legalizing assisted suicide in that province, there seems little chance of passing similar legislation at the federal level in the foreseeable future.
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