A new report from the Washington state health department shows the number of people killing themselves in assisted suicides is on the rise for the second straight time since the state followed Oregon in legalizing assisted suicide.
The number of Washington state residents who died increased to 70 in 2011, up from the 51 who killed themselves in 2010 and higher than the 36 who used the law to take their own lives in 2009 after the new law went into effect. According to the Washington State Department of Health, 103 patients requested and received lethal doses of the assisted suicide cocktail from 80 different prescribing physicians last year.
Along with the 71 who died from using the lethal drugs, another 19 patients who received the cocktail died of natural causes and another five died but there is no information on whether they used the drugs to take their lives.
The report indicated most patients who killed themselves in assisted suicides feared loss of autonomy, dignity and ability to participate in activities that make life enjoyable. Approximately 90 percent were white and 75 percent had some college education while nearly 80 percent of the patients had cancer.
Earlier this year, Oregon’s report on its assisted suicides showed there were more prescriptions and deaths than in any previous year; the number of prescriptions written for lethal doses of barbiturates increased from 97 in 2010 to 114 in 2011, and the reported deaths from assisted suicide increased from 65 to 71.
Some 62 doctors wrote 114 prescriptions, with some writing up to 14 prescriptions each. Some doctors knew the patient for only one week before writing the prescriptions. As has occurred in prior years, not all who attempt to take the drugs will die. Two patients ingested the medication but failed to die. Each regained consciousness and died more than a day later, 30 hours and 38 hours respectively, of their underlying illness; they were not considered to have died from the ingested drugs. These are not easy drugs to take, they are bitter and foul-tasting, and vomiting does occur despite anti-emetics.
After last year’s Washington assisted suicide report, Eileen Geller, the president of True Compassion Advocates, said the accuracy of the reporting from the health department should be questioned in light of people whose status was unknown after receiving a prescription from a doctor for the lethal drugs to kill themselves.
“The published data from the 2010 report is so limited and unreliable that even some who agree with the policy have qualms regarding the DOH’s inability to determine whether the law operates with the full safety and ‘voluntariness’ its proponents promised,” she said. “Washington voters thought they were getting a law to assure choice—what they’ve received is something entirely different, a law which has in some instances become a recipe for elder abuse and a vehicle for financial coercion.”
Geller said her office “has received many reports from health care professionals, family members, and friends concerned about safety of loved ones at risk for or requesting assisted suicide. Calls from worried and overwhelmed family members have increased in the aftermath of state and federal budget cuts for elder, caregiver, and disability support.”
Examples Geller cited include a concerned nephew worried his uncle’s untreated depression and lack of adequate funding for care led to his request for doctor prescribed suicide under the DWDA; and a seriously ill paralyzed woman who was discharged prematurely from a Seattle-area hospital and worried about being a burden to her family. In the latter case, the woman did not have financial resources for adequate care—she requested doctor prescribed death via the assisted suicide law because she felt she did not have any other real choices.
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Geller was contacted about an elderly gentleman whose young wife (and financial heir) hosted a suicide party after encouraging him to die via doctor prescribed suicide, despite the objections of other family members who wanted to care for him and she was informed of a case concerning a depressed man with no health insurance who requested assisted suicide because of financial worries and pressure from family members.
At that time, Geller noted the Department of Health did not ask about potential cases of abuse and did not tell about the safety risks associated with this law.
“The report, for instance, relies on a very few forms to collect the data—and these forms are supposed to include information about the circumstances when the lethal dose was ingested, and how long it took for the person to die. The data for that section of the report comes from an “After Death Reporting Form,” which is completed by the prescribing physician,” she said. “But according to the report, the prescribing physician is rarely present when the lethal dose is ingested (only 4% of the time, to be precise). One wonders how he or she might give an accurate account of a death via lethal ingestion if he or she wasn’t in fact present at the time of death.”