Washington State’s health department has now released their first annual report for the Death with Dignity Act, the voter-approved law that legalized assisted suicide in 2008 and went into effect on March 5, 2009.
The State Department of Health reports that 63 individuals requested and received lethal prescriptions to kill themselves under the Act for the year 2009. Forty-seven individuals have died. Of these 36 patients were confirmed to have killed themselves by ingesting the poisonous medicine. (Statistics available here)
Sixteen patients still have a status that is “unknown at this time.” The health department speculates some of these “participants” may have opted to “wait to use the medication” or “choose not to use it.” It further adds that some may have taken the lethal doses and died, but that the Department of Health has not yet received the After Death Reporting Form (due 30 days after death) and the Death Certificate (due 60 days after death.)
Cancer was the underlying illness in 79 percent of patients seeking to kill themselves. Neurodegenerative disease and respiratory disease accounted for nine percent each, with the rest being other illnesses.
But when it came to reasons for dying, pain did not factor high on the list of “end of life concerns.” Just twenty-five percent, or eleven out of 44 individuals that had applied for lethal medication, cited “inadequate pain control or concern about it.”
In fact the top three reasons expressed by participants for wanting to die were ranked “losing autonomy” (100%), “less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable” (91%), and “loss of dignity” (82%).
Forty-one percent of those that died expressed fear of “losing control of bodily functions.”
Ten individuals (23%) cited the burden they would put on their family, friends and caregivers.
“This is a marker of possible abuse because the person was pressured to feel that way,” said pro-life advocate and euthanasia foe, Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.
Schadenberg said that there are several indicators in the report that point towards possible elder abuse: the majority of patients were over 65 and educated, and half had some form of private insurance. “These factors are consistent with their being individuals with money. Older people with money are prime targets of abuse,” he said, citing a Met Life study.
Schadenberg pointed to a report from Washington attorney Margaret Dore, expressing the same concerns over the elderly becoming victims under the Act, allegedly because the law as written invites coercion. Dore pointed out in a July 2009 article for the Washington State Bar News that the elderly may feel pressure to kill themselves from their heirs, who can co-sign as witnesses on the lethal prescription.
Dore writes that the law requires the individual’s consent to receive the prescription for lethal medication; but it does not require his consent to ingest the medication and kill himself. In addition, no witnesses are required at the time of death, so there is no way to prove whether it was the individual himself who took the medication, or whether it was administered, perhaps forcibly, by someone else.
“Even if he struggled, who would know? The lethal dose request would provide the alibi,” wrote Dore. “This scenario would seem especially significant for patients with money.”
The law also requires prosecutors to treat the individual’s death as “natural,” making it practically impossible for the authorities to pursue suspicions of foul-play.
The health department report also indicates that only three individuals out of the sixty-three were referred for psychological or psychiatric counseling before applying to receive lethal medication – an additional cause of concern, in the view of anti-euthanasia activists.
“Someone could possibly appear to be confident or appear to be lucid, but that does not mean they actually are lucid,” Schadenberg told LifeSiteNews.com. “The fact is that people lots of times make decisions that they would not make otherwise, and with a little counseling and support, they would say, ‘I don’t really want this.’ But no they’ve not even given them the chance.”
“It’s really not about confidence or choice or anything like that. The fact is that the goal is about providing death to people, and death-on-demand.”