March 5, 2010 in City

Assisted suicide law in use

At least 36 died after taking fatal medication
Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Kathy Sparks, a former hospice nurse who is dying of cancer, talks about her fight against the disease at a news conference in Seattle on Thursday.
(Full-size photo)

At a glance

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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 of Washington 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.

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.

Kathy Sparks, of Issaquah, Wash., a former hospice nurse who said she is dying of cancer, spoke at the Compassion & Choices news conference and said she hasn’t felt any pressure to end her life.

“I’m glad I live in a compassionate state that gives me choices,” she said.

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