Politics & Government

36 in state use lethal dose to end life

SEATTLE - Sixty-three suicide prescriptions were dispensed during the first nine months of Washington's Death With Dignity Act and at least 36 people used that lethal dose to end their lives, though there were three reported complications, state officials said Thursday.

The prescriptions for lethal doses of medication were written by 53 different doctors and dispensed by 29 different pharmacists, the Department of Health said in its first annual report on the law that took effect in March 2009. Those who died were between the ages of 48 and 95. Most had terminal cancer and all were expected to die within six months.

The statistics show that use of the program has been similar to the first year of Oregon’s assisted suicide law, said Health Department spokesman Donn Moyer. Oregon adopted the nation’s first “death with dignity” law in 1997.

Montana became the third state to allow assisted suicide at the end of 2009 after the Montana Supreme Court ruled that nothing in state law prevents patients from seeking physician-assisted suicide.

Although proponents of physician-assisted suicide have called it a more peaceful way to die, the report notes three complications in administering the fatal dose: one instance of “regurgitation” after taking the pills and two people who “awakened after taking prescribed medication.”

Washington state has received zero complaints from the public about doctors and pharmacists and their compliance with the law, the agency said.

“We’re very satisfied with the compliance by the health care provider community,” Moyer said.

Of the 63 people who received lethal doses of prescription medicine between March and December 2009, 47 are known to have died. Thirty-six of them died after taking the medications and seven most likely died from their ailment.

The agency said it doesn’t know the details of the other four because the death certificate or death report hasn’t been filed.

Of the 47 who died, 98 percent were white and 61 percent had some college education. Nearly all lived west of the Cascades. Most died at home. After taking the pills, most were unconscious within 10 minutes, and most died within 90 minutes. At least one person remained alive for 28 hours, according to the report

Under the Washington law, any patient requesting fatal medication must be at least 18 years old, be declared mentally competent, a resident of the state and have a terminal condition with six months or less to live.

Representatives of a group that advocates for physician help with dying said Thursday afternoon that the law is working exactly as expected and more doctors are writing prescriptions for their patients who request them.

There are still rural areas where doctors have refused to write a prescription for a fatal dose of medicine, which is their legal right, said Dr. Tom Preston, a retired Seattle cardiologist who spoke at a news conference held by the group Compassion & Choices of Washington.

Preston has advised people to ask another doctor when one refuses.

True Compassion Advocates, a group opposed to the law, said it plans to picket the University of Washington Medical Center at noon today to “stand in solidarity with seniors, people with disabilities” and others hurt by the law.