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Elderly patients at risk of forced starvation in Oregon

New bill would give family and doctors the ability to withhold food and water without a patient’s consent.

Oregon pro-lifers are fighting a bill in their state’s Senate that could allow the starvation or dehydration of patients with dementia or mental illness—without their prior written consent.

S.B. 494, introduced by a judiciary committee, appears at first simply to update the state’s advance directive laws. But it allows a patient’s representative to remove undefined “life-sustaining procedures” if the patient has “a progressive illness,” has stopped talking, and cannot recognize family members.

The bill would allow an authorized guardian, spouse, a majority of their children, their parents, a friend, or if none is available, an attending physician to order the withdrawal of “life-sustaining procedures” that could include food and water, even if the advance directive did not give explicit permission or if the patient had no advance directive at all.

A spokeswoman for the Senate committee said about 50 people worked on the legislation for the last two years. Authors of the bill did not respond to questions about its content.

“S.B. 494 has as its goal to give surrogates the ability to withdraw food and fluids from Alzheimer’s patients, dementia patients, and mentally ill patients,” Gayle Atteberry, director of Oregon Right to Life, told me. “It does it in very sneaky and crafty ways, but it does it.”

Atteberry said lawmakers kept the bill’s wording intentionally vague in order “to make everything very unclear and subject to whatever the people surrounding the patient want to do.”

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