Washington now leads in assisted suicides

Baptist Press
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Posted: Jul 09, 2013 5:22 PM
WASHINGTON (BP) -- Washington has become the No. 1 state for physician-assisted suicide.

At least 83 people in Washington died in 2012 after taking lethal doses of drugs prescribed by doctors, the State Department of Health reported June 20. That total pushed Washington beyond Oregon, which has had legalized assisted suicide 12 years longer and has always held the annual record for such deaths. Earlier this year, Oregon reported 77 assisted suicide deaths in 2012 for its highest total ever.

The increase in assisted suicides annually from 36 to 83 since 2009 prompted Southern Baptist bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell to say Washington's "numbers are chilling."

Washington, which legalized assisted suicide in 2009, has reported 240 such deaths in less than four years. Oregon has reported 673 deaths by assisted suicide since its Death With Dignity Act went into effect in 1997, according to the state's Public Health Division.

Assisted suicide moved from the Pacific Northwest to New England in May when Vermont became the third state in the country to legalize the practice and the first state to enact such a measure legislatively. Oregon and Washington both approved assisted suicide in voter initiatives.

Mitchell took issue with the language used in the report, describing it as "surreal."

Describing patients as "participants" in the law and lethal drugs as "medication" is "something right out of Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World,'" said Mitchell, professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and a biomedical and life issues consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

"'Medication' comes from a Latin word which means 'healing' or 'cure,'" Mitchell said. "Physician-assisted suicide is neither. It represents the failure of doctors to exercise their professional responsibility never to harm patients."

Washington's latest report showed 121 people received lethal drug doses under the assisted suicide law in 2012. Of these, 104 had died by the end of the year -- 83 after ingesting the drugs and 18 without doing so. It was uncertain whether three of those who died took the drugs.

Washington's latest report included more evidence of what opponents say are major problems with legalizing assisted suicide:

-- Only three of the 121 people who obtained lethal prescriptions in 2012 received referrals for psychiatric or psychological evaluation.

-- Just five of the doctors who prescribed the drugs were present when the patients took the dosages.

-- The report is based on information provided by prescribing physicians, making it difficult to discover abuses.

As with previous reports from Washington and Oregon, Washington's 2012 statistics showed the leading end-of-life concerns by those who died were "losing autonomy" (94 percent), being unable "to engage in activities making life enjoyable" (90 percent) and "loss of dignity" (84 percent).

Those who died in 2012 after receiving lethal drugs were between the ages of 35 and 95, according to the Washington Department of Health. More than 70 percent had cancer.

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Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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