Assisted suicide used carefully, group says

SEATTLE — At least 18 people have chosen to end their lives in the first six months of the voter- approved law allowing physician aid in dying for terminally ill patients.

Compassion &Choices of Washington reported Tuesday that 14 of their clients died after using a lethal dose of legally prescribed drugs while another four received medication but died naturally without using them.

More people may have used the law to die since it went into use in March.

Pharmacies have given life- ending drugs to 28 patients as of Sept. 3, according to the state Department of Health.

The same agency has received reports from attending physicians following deaths of 16 people. Some of them were not clients of Compassion &Choices and thus not included in the figures announced by the group Tuesday.

The discrepancy between the state and the group’s numbers is because attending physicians have up to 30 days to submit required “after death” reports. Paperwork for recent deaths of Compassion &Choices clients has not been included in Department of Health statistics online as of Tuesday, Miller said

At this point, the deaths of the Compassion &Choices clients amount to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all deaths statewide in 2008, indicating the law is being used carefully and sparingly, Robb Miller, executive director of the group, said Tuesday.

The situation in Washington and Oregon, which adopted the nation’s first “death with dignity” law in 1997, shows the assisted deaths “have been safe, legal and rare,” Miller said.

Eileen Geller, president of True Compassion Advocates, said she found the statistics chilling.

She called it a tragedy that Washington allows assisted suicide at the same time it’s making deep cuts in health care.

“When society starts to tell people that are ill, elderly and disabled that their lives aren’t worthy to live, they get the message,” she said.

Washington and Oregon are the only two states with voter-approved assisted suicide laws.

In Montana, a court has ruled in an individual lawsuit that residents have a constitutionally protected right to physician-aided suicide, but the ruling is now before the state Supreme Court.

Robb Miller said a Compassion &Choices of Washington volunteer was present for each of the 14 clients who died after obtaining drugs.

“None of our clients died alone and all of them died at home,” he said.

Of the group’s clients who have died, none lived in Snohomish County, Miller said.

One Snohomish County resident has received medication under the law. That person did not have a volunteer assigned them so the organization does not know what has happened since they obtained the drugs, said Amber Wade, director of client support and administration.

State Department of Health officials would not confirm whether any Snohomish County residents are among those who have requested medication or died.

No details on gender, age and residence of those receiving and ingesting medication are being released.

Some of that information may be included when the agency issues a report early next year on the law, which voters approved by initiative in 2008.

At a news conference held by Compassion &Choices Tuesday, Ann Watkins, 68, of Tacoma said she sought and received the medication after being told last month she had two to six months to live. She has cancer in her lungs, brain and bones and has declined chemotherapy, saying it would only extend her life a few months at best.

Watkins said she wants to maintain control over her life and doesn’t want to end it in pain.

“I hope I don’t have to take the pill, but if I do, thank God,” she said.

Washington based its law on the statute in Oregon, where about 400 people have used it to end their lives.

Compassion &Choices said 88 prescriptions were written under the Oregon law in 2008, with 54 of those people taking the lethal medications. Another 22 died of the underlying disease and 12 were alive at the end of the year.

Another six patients with prescriptions from earlier years died from taking the medication in 2008.

On May 21, Linda Fleming of Sequim became the first person under Washington’s law to take her life with a deadly prescription of barbiturates. Fleming, 66, who had been diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer, said she feared her remaining days would be filled with pain and mind-numbing medication.

Her daughter, Lisa Osborne, was at her side. At Tuesday’s news conference, she said her mother died “on her own terms, in her way and through her own choices.”

She objected to calling her mother’s death a suicide.

“Suicide is an expression of despair and disconnection,” Osborne said. “My mother was neither despairing nor was she disconnected. She didn’t want to die. She wished to live. By choosing her time of death, she chose to live in the present and savor the time she had left.”

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