Autonomy, not pain, was concern for Washington’s first assisted suicides

Sixty-three suicide prescriptions were dispensed during the first nine months of Washington state's "death with dignity" act, according to the first official statistics since assisted suicide became legal in March last year. At least 36 people have used their lethal medication to end their lives. This was roughly one in a thousand deaths in the state.

There have been no complaints from the public about doctors and pharmacists and their compliance with the law, said the state health department. "We're very satisfied with the compliance by the health care provider community," said spokesman Donn Moyer.

The statistics, which are available on the department’s website, are a bit difficult to interpret, as not everyone who took out a prescription used it. Of the 63, 47 are now dead. Seven died of their ailment and 36 after taking the lethal dose, but in 4 cases, no death certificate had been received.

Why did they want to die? According to the report, “All were concerned about loss of autonomy, 82 percent about loss of dignity, and 91 percent about losing the ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable.” Only 25% mentioned inadequate pain control, although 79% had cancer; 23% feared being a burden.

A psychiatric assessment of the patient is not required unless the attending doctor requests one. Only 3 reports were filed. That worried Eileen Geller, president of True Compassion Advocates. "Really, the majority of people who experience a serious or chronic illness have at some point untreated clinical depression," Geller said. "When someone says, 'What's going to happen to me? I'm worried about my finances, I'm worried about my family,' do you really want to treat it differently and say, 'Well, here's some lethal drugs.' "

Former Washington governor Booth Gardner, the man who masterminded the campaign to legalise assisted suicide in his state, is heading to Hollywood this weekend to see if a documentary about the campaign will win an Oscar. ~ Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mar 4

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