An Oregon bill that could lead to the unrequested starvation and dehydration of dementia and Alzheimer’s patients has returned to the state legislature after facing defeat last year.
The first-of-its-kind bill could give a family member or healthcare representative the ability to deprive someone of ordinary feeding by a cup or spoon after they have lost the ability to make medical decisions for themselves.
The state House passed the measure earlier this month in a 35-25 vote, and Oregon Right to Life director Lois Anderson told me she fully expects the state Senate to pass it this week: “This session, we just haven’t been able to keep it from being voted on in both chambers.”
Last year, Senate lawmakers proposed a similar bill that the House defeated by sending it to an already-closed committee.
State Rep. Mitch Greenlick, a sponsor of this year’s bill, claimed in a hearing the measure has nothing to do with Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, the law authorizing physician-assisted suicide.
“This is a misconception and it is wrong,” he said. “This bill updates, on an interim basis, the advance directive law which clarifies a form. … It simply seeks to put a committee together to modify the form currently in use to more accurately reflect the values of the patient.”
But the form’s unclear wording leaves room for involuntary removal of food and water from those who have become unable to “communicate healthcare decisions.”
The proposed bill would replace the current advance directive form, which more narrowly defines “life support” and “tube feeding,” with a temporary form that blurs the lines between those terms and feeding by cup and hand. The current form specifies tube feeding as “food and water supplied artificially by medical device,” while the new form simply calls it “artificially administered food and water.”
The bill leaves intact the Oregon statute that specifically excludes feeding by cup or hand from “artificially administered nutrition and hydration.” Anderson insists that discrepancy leaves people who can still eat and drink apart from a feeding tube vulnerable to the decisions of their healthcare representative.
“It takes away the certainty that a healthcare representative cannot make that decision for somebody and makes it murky and ambiguous,” she said. “It removes protections from people who are incapable of making medical decisions, but they’re still conscious. So it expands the authority of their appointed healthcare representative to make life-ending decisions for them when they haven’t specifically indicated the kinds of decisions they want.”
The bill establishes a governor-appointed committee to draft future versions of the advance directive form, and Anderson said if the bill becomes law her group will watch closely the committee’s formation and work. In the meantime, Anderson encourages Oregonians to take precautions.
“People are distressed about this, and rightly so, but there are still opportunities available for people to protect their loved ones and themselves, and that’s definitely what we’d be working on,” she said.