Collaboration in Civic Spheres

New state report: 2011 assisted suicides reach new high

by May 2nd, 2012

Under a law approved by voters in 2008, 80 different doctors wrote prescriptions for 103 lethal doses of medication in Washington in 2011 and 94 of the patients are known to have died, according to the state’s third annual Death With Dignity Act report. Issued today by the Washington State Department of Health, the report also notes that the 2011 totals for assisted suicide requests and deaths under the law reached a new high since the enabling state law went into effect in early 2009. Most of the 2011 Death With Dignity participants lived west of the Cascades, and were suffering from cancer. Many were concerned about losing ability to take care of themselves. A high percentage of the 94 participants who died also indicated concerns abut loss of dignity from their disease, and diminished ability to enjoy life. Participants also frequently identified as concerns their loss of bodily functions, imposing a burden on family and caregivers, and to a lesser extent, inadequate pain relief. The main drug prescribed for the assisted suicides was was secobarbital; although some doctors prescribed pentobarbital.

The 94 participants who died ranged in age from 41 to 101, and 94 percent were white. Almost three-quarters had at least some college education. Seventy-eight percent had cancer, 12 percent had neuro-degenerative disease including Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and 10 percent had either heart or respiratory disease or another illness.

Of the 94 participants who died, 70 did so after taking their lethal medication dosage, most within 90 minutes. Nineteen died without taking their prescribed dosage. For five of the 94 who died, it was unclear whether or not they had ingested the prescribed medicine. Of the remaining nine participants, there was no documentation they had died.

The 103 participants and 94 deaths in 2011 compared to 87 and 84, respectively, in 2010; and 65 and 63 in 2009, the year the state law went into effect on March 5.

For the third year running, the split between male and female participants was nearly even, and only slightly more than one-tenth of participants either lacked health insurance or had unknown insurance status.

The state’s Death With Dignity Act allows Washington residents who’ve been determined to have six months or less to live, to choose physician-assisted suicide. The report only covers assisted suicides, or requests for it, which occurred in compliance with the law’s notification and documentation requirements involving patients, doctors, pharmacists and coroners.

RELATED: “One Story Behind Washington 2011 Death With Dignity Act Statistics,” Colin Fogarty, KPLU-FM, NPR.

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