Sequim woman, 66, is first to die under state’s assisted suicide law

OLYMPIA – A 66-year-old woman with terminal cancer has become the first person to die under Washington state’s new assisted suicide law, an advocacy group said Friday.

Linda Fleming of Sequim, died Thursday night after taking drugs prescribed under the “Death with Dignity” law that took effect in March, said Compassion & Choices of Washington.

Officials with the advocacy group said Fleming, who was diagnosed last month with advance pancreatic cancer, died at home with her family, her dog and her physician at her bedside.

“The pain became unbearable, and it was only going to get worse,” Fleming said in a statement released by the organization.

A physician prescribed the medication, but under the law, patients must administer the drugs themselves.

Voters approved the law in November by a nearly 60-percent vote, making Washington the second state to have a voter-approved assisted suicide law. It is based on a law adopted by Oregon voters in 1997. Since then, about 400 people have used the Oregon law to end their lives.

In December a district judge in Montana ruled that doctor-assisted suicides are legal in that state. That decision, based on an individual lawsuit rather than a state law or voter initiative, is before the Montana Supreme Court.

While doctors in Montana are allowed to write prescriptions for life-ending drugs pending the appeal, it’s unknown whether any actually have, because there’s no reporting process in place.

Dr. Tom Preston, a retired cardiologist and board member of Compassion & Choices, said Washington’s law adds another option for patients like Fleming.

“The prescribed medication gives patients peace of mind that they can use to take control of their dying if suffering becomes intolerable,” he said in a written statement.

Chris Carlson, who campaigned against the new law with the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide, called the death unfortunate.

“Any premature death is a sad occasion and it diminishes us all,” he said.

Under the law, doctors and pharmacists are not required to write or fill lethal prescriptions if they oppose the measure. Some hospitals have opted out, which precludes their doctors from participating on hospital property.

Any patient requesting fatal medication must be at least 18, declared mentally competent and be a resident of the state. Two doctors must certify the patient has a terminal condition and six months or less to live, and the patient must make two oral requests 15 days apart, plus a written request that is witnessed by two people.

To comply with the law, a number of forms are required for each patient, but doctors have 30 days to file the forms after the prescription is filled.

As of Friday, the state Department of Health had received six forms from pharmacists saying they have dispensed the life-ending drugs.

The state also has received five forms from an individual requesting medication to “end my life in a humane and dignified manner,” and five doctors have completed forms complying with the rules of the new law.

The Health Department will report annually on the ages, genders and illnesses of the people who file forms with the state, but the individual forms people complete are exempt from state open records laws.