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Wash. assisted suicides mimic Ore.’s

WASHINGTON (BP)–The state of Washington, following a pattern established in its neighbor Oregon, showed in its first report since legalizing physician-assisted suicide that people who took advantage of the law were most concerned about a lack of freedom or control and were largely not referred for psychiatric evaluation.

The Washington Department of Health reported at least 36 people died from taking lethal doses of drugs prescribed in 2009. Four other prescription recipients died without the state knowing if they took the medication. Another seven prescription recipients died without taking the drugs. The status of 16 others who received prescriptions was unknown.

The report covered prescriptions dispensed from March 5 of last year until the end of 2009.

Of the 44 prescription recipients for whom information was available, 100 percent were concerned about “losing autonomy,” 91 percent about an inability “to engage in activities making life enjoyable” and 82 percent about a “loss of dignity.” Only 25 percent were concerned about “inadequate pain control,” and just one of the 44 people was concerned about “financial implications.”

The March 4 report also showed an apparent failure to address possible depression in those seeking to commit assisted suicide. Only seven percent, or three of 44, were referred to psychiatrists.

A day before Washington released its first report, Oregon, which has had legal assisted suicide since late 1997, again showed similar results in its report.

Oregon reported 59 people died after taking lethal doses of prescriptions in 2009. That brings the total of people in the state who have died by legalized assisted suicide to 460.

Of those, 97 percent were concerned about “losing autonomy,” 86 percent about being unable “to engage in activities making life enjoyable” and 92 percent about a “loss of dignity.”

None of those who died by assisted suicide in Oregon in 2009 were referred for psychiatric evaluation.

“So, Washington looks like Oregon, redux,” bioethics commentator Wesley Smith wrote on his weblog March 6. “And that’s too bad. Terminally ill patients deserve better than to have their worst fears verified by doctors issuing lethal prescriptions instead of vowing to stay with the patient to the end caring for their pain, validating their dignity and supporting the importance of their lives.”

Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation said of the Washington report, “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 [in the law] 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.”

Montana is the only other state that permits assisted suicide. A court legalized the practice in that state, while voters made it legal in Oregon and Washington.

In assisted suicide, doctors are permitted to prescribe drugs to aid in suicides but not to administer them to the person taking his own life.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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