Oregon's advance directive bill is deceptive and deadly, critics warn

By Mary Rezac

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The Oregon Senate has passed an advance directive bill that critics say would allow the starvation and dehydration of patients who have dementia or mental illness.

Earlier this week, Oregon Right to Life executive director Gayle Atteberry said the bill was “written in a deceiving manner.” She said its goal was “to save money at the expense of starving and dehydrating dementia and mentally ill patients to death.”

S.B. 494 passed the Oregon Senate by four votes on June 8. The bill would remove existing safeguards that protect conscious patients’ access to ordinary food and water even after they have lost the ability to make decisions about their care.

The bill was drafted in response to the case of Ashland, Ore. resident Nora Harris, who suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. She lost the ability to communicate and the fine motor skills needed to feed herself. She would eat and drink only with assisted spoon feeding.

Harris’ husband had filed a suit to stop the spoon feeding but lost his case in July 2016. Harris herself was represented by a court-appointed attorney, who said that that refusing to help Harris eat would be against state law. The law and Harris’ advance directive authorized only the withdrawal of artificial means of hydration and nutrition. Jackson County Circuit Judge Patricia Crain agreed, the Medford Mail-Tribune reports.

Oregon Right to Life objected to efforts to change the advance directive system.

“If the bill passes, it could allow a court to interpret a request on an advance directive to refuse tube feeding to also mean you don’t want to receive spoon feeding,” the group said in February. “This is not tube feeding or an IV. This is basic, non-medical care for conscious patients.”

Current safeguards limit the authority of the healthcare representative, ensuring a patient is able to receive basic care and their life is not ended, except under certain limited end-of-life conditions.

Bill 494 would effectively render these safeguards null, critics said.

“It doesn’t matter that the bill doesn’t explicitly state this or that this is not the principal intent of the bill, it likely will be the real effect,” said Colm Willis, a Republican candidate for Congress, in testimony to the Senate Rules Committee on behalf of Oregon Right to Life on June 5.

Willis said the bill creates a situation where a person’s previously indicated intentions “may not be reflected in the decisions made for you when you can no longer make those decisions for yourself.”

He noted that even when someone has lost the ability to make complex medical decisions, he or she often retains the ability to decide whether or not to eat.

That person’s will should be “respected as long as possible,” he said.

Oregon Right to Life’s Atteberry told EWTN News the bill would now move on to a vote at the House of Representatives, where it may have a harder time passing than the Senate, because of a greater number of pro-life representatives.

She said the group would now focus its efforts on asking people to contact their representatives to voice their opposition to the bill. 

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