Writings and observations

Why they died

Washington state has released its first annual report on the death with dignity” law that took effect a year ago tomorrow. What it says reflects closely what the law’s advocates have argued.

As the report defines it, the law (passed by initiative) “allows terminally ill adults seeking to end their lives in a humane and dignified manner to request lethal doses of medication from medical and osteopathic physicians. These terminally ill patients must be Washington residents who have six months (180 days) or less to live.”

Concerns about mass abuse were unfounded, as they were in Oregon. From March 5 through the end of last year, fatal doses were prescribed to 63 people, a number roughly mirroring (allowing for population differences) Oregon’s. Of those, 36 people died after taking the medication; of the others, some died without ever taking it, and some haven’t taken it so far. About four of five of the 63 had cancer; 89% were insured. Only one indicated that financial concerns played a role in asking for the medication.

So what was the motivation? Of the 44 who responded to that question, all replied, “losing autonomy.” 40 of them: “Less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable.” And 36 of them: “Loss of dignity.”

“Death with dignity” may be a catchphrase chosen for political acceptability, but it actually does seem to mirror the attitudes for the people who use the law.

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