Anti-Euthanasia Groups Blast New Washington State Report on Assisted Suicide

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Mar 5, 2010   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Anti-Euthanasia Groups Blast New Washington State Report on Assisted Suicide

by Steven Ertelt Editor
March 5
, 2010

Olympia, WA ( — Two groups that oppose euthanasia are taking issue with a new report released by Washington state officials showing at least 36 people died after they killed themselves under the first year of the state’s new law legalizing assisted suicides. They say the law has opened up elderly abuse and other problems.

The figures from the state indicate Washington doctors gave prescriptions for lethal doses of drugs to 63 patients between March 5, when the law went into effect, and the end of 2009.

The numbers reveal 47 people died — with 36 of them taking the lethal cocktail of drugs while seven people died of other causes and four people died but it could not be determined if they died from an assisted suicide or for other reasons.

Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition emailed about his concerns with the new report.

"The majority were 65 years old or older, and educated. Nearly half had private insurance. These factors are consistent with their being individuals with money. Older people with money are prime targets of abuse," he said. "Washington’s act is, regardless, coercive: An heir who will benefit from the death, is allowed to help the person sign up for the lethal dose; there is no requirement of consent at the time of death."

According to the report, 23 percent of the Washington residents who killed themselves via assisted suicide did so due to a concern about becoming a "burden" to their families.

"This is a marker of possible abuse because the person was pressured to feel that way," Schadenberg said. "After the death, even prosecutors are required to treat the death (voluntary or not) as ‘natural.’ Elders abused by the Act have no recourse."

Dr. Patricia O’Halloran, the vice president of Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation, also pointed out numerous problems she’s seen.

She says there is no way of knowing whether the Washington health department compiled all of the information.

"It is difficult to know how complete this information is, as, under the Act, there is no specific penalty for failure to provide this information to DOH; DOH notes they will contact the involved party should information not be received. It is unclear however how they would know to contact a physician or pharmacist if no information at all is received," she explained to

O’Halloran is concerned that only three patients, or seven percent of those who died in assisted suicides were referred for psychiatric evaluation—despite the fact that the primary reason people attempt and die from suicide is underlying depression.

"There is no substantiated basis on which to presume that depression is not likewise a very significant factor among patients seeking assisted suicide after learning of a poor prognosis and short life expectancy. Yet, inexplicably, there is no requirement that a patient be evaluated by a psychiatrist or psychologist to rule out depression or other psychiatric disorder which might readily respond to treatment which in turn may lead to resolution of the thoughts and plans of suicide," she explains.

Under the Act, referral for such an evaluation is left entirely up to the “attending physician” and “consulting physician."

O’Halloran says there is no guarantee that either doctor "may have any experience whatsoever in identifying and treating depression, anxiety, or other distressing and potentially contributory disorders."

O’Halloran is also concerned about followup and points out that the physician who wrote for the fatal overdose was present at the time it was ingested in only 3 of the 36 cases.

In 17 other cases, another “provider” was present at the death, in 12 cases, no provider was present and in four cases there was no notation about anyone present.

"Who are these witnesses to death? Are they advocates of assisted suicide, such as associates of Compassion & Choices, the advocacy organization that was involved in 97% of assisted suicide deaths in Oregon in 2009?" P’Halloran asked. "In the remaining 45% of cases, we have no information as to whether anyone was present with the patient when they died. Did they die alone?"

The report also shows problems as one patient regurgitated the drug and two others awoke after taking the lethal cocktail. Patients didn’t die until between nine minutes and 28 hours after taking the drugs.

The physician is also concerned about the delay in the length of time from between when the lethal drugs are prescribed and when they are taken.

"The drug may have been issued months earlier (10 months earlier in one case, highlighting the difficulty in predicting life expectancy)," she told "Without an unbiased, disinterested witness at death, there is no way to know if the patient was of sound mind and making an informed choice when the actual ingestion took place, or even if the patient ingested it voluntarily."

Related web sites:
Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation –
Euthanasia Prevention Coalition –

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