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Better Off Dead

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#9 Why should one church decide for all of us? Death with dignity in Oregon

Listen to #9 Why should one church decide for all of us? Death with dignity in Oregon

The success of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act – at 18 years, the world’s longest-running law of this kind – puts two things into sharp relief. Firstly, the increasingly desperate attempts of opponents to discredit it. Secondly, the truth they don’t want you to see – that this law works, and exactly as intended.

How that law came to pass in such a religiously conservative country stands as a masterclass in public policy, and one that set the template other US states have since followed.

Brittany Maynard holds a framed photo from her wedding

Brittany Maynard: 'I would like all Americans to have access to the same healthcare rights' — Source: YouTube

The most significant of these was California, which in 2015 adopted Oregon’s law – thanks in no small part to a woman named Brittany Maynard.

Brittany was just 29, and dying of brain cancer, when she left her home in California to go and live in Oregon, where the law offered her a choice about how she died. Her decision to use her dying days to campaign publicly for a similar law in California made her a household name, with her videos attracting over 16 million views on YouTube.

As he signed California’s End of Life Option Act into law, Governor Jerry Brown – a Catholic – said: ‘I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.’

'I think we do a much better job because of this law. It’s done exactly what it’s supposed to, and more.'

Leigh Dolin, former president of the Oregon Medical Association

Please note: this podcast is not about suicide. If you are interested in increasing your understanding of suicide and how to support someone experiencing suicidal ideation, visit the Conversations Matter or beyondblue websites.

If you (or someone you know) require immediate assistance, contact one of the following 24/7 crisis support services: Lifeline (13 11 14), Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467), MensLine (1300 78 99 78), beyondblue (1300 22 4636), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) or eheadspace (1800 650 890).

Hear more

Better Off Dead: Interview with Peg Sandeen

Peg Sandeen is the executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center in Portland, Oregon. Here, she describes how Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act works, and the campaign to take it to other states in America.

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In this episode

  • Eli Stutsman
  • Derek Humphry
  • Leigh Dolin
  • Kevin Yuill
  • Alex Schadenberg
  • Nancy Elliott
  • Catherine Glenn Foster
  • Katrina Hedberg
  • Daniel E. Lee

Our theme music was composed by Zig Zag Lane for Zapruder's Other Films, and edited by Jon Tjhia. Music used in this episode includes 'Haust' (Ólafur Arnalds), 'Dead Radio' (Rowland S. Howard), 'The Puritan' (This Will Destroy You), 'Petiatil Cx Htdui' (Aphex Twin), 'LSD' (ASAP Rocky), 'I Might be Wrong' (Radiohead), 'Between Stones' (Blue Dot Sessions) and 'Forty-Eight Angels' (Paul Kelly).

Your stories

If you're suffering, or someone you love has died badly – in a hospital, in palliative care, in a nursing home, or at home – add your voice and tell your story here.

Further information

Better Off Dead is produced by Thought Fox and the Wheeler Centre.

Executive producers Andrew Denton and Michael Williams. Producer and researcher Bronwen Reid. For Better Off Dead, the Wheeler Centre team includes Director Michael Williams, Head of Programming Emily Sexton, Head of Marketing and Communications Emily Harms, Projects Producer Amita Kirpalani and Digital Manager Jon Tjhia. Editing, sound design and mix on this episode is by Martin Peralta. Additional editing by Jon Tjhia.

Thank you

Thanks to Paul Kelly and Sony ATV for the use of his song ‘Forty Eight Angels’.

The series

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Better Off Dead is produced by Thought Fox in partnership with the Wheeler Centre. It is written and created by Andrew Denton for Thought Fox.


Portrait of Andrew Denton

Andrew Denton

Andrew Denton is widely recognised as one of Australian media's genuinely creative forces.


All messages as part of this discussion and any opinions, advice, statements, or other information contained in any messages or transmitted by any third party are the responsibility of the author of that message and not the Wheeler Centre.

Better Off Dead

Andrew Denton investigates the stories, moral arguments and individuals woven into discussions about why good people are dying bad deaths in Australia.