SEATTLE – Eleven people have used prescribed drugs to end their lives during the first six months after a Washington state law took effect allowing assisted suicides for terminally ill patients, an advocacy group said Tuesday.
Another five people received life-ending drugs under the law but died without using them, the group Compassion & Choices of Washington said.
The deaths amount to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all deaths statewide in 2008, indicating the law is being used carefully and sparingly, Robb Miller, executive director of the group, said at a Tuesday news conference.
The situation in Washington and Oregon, which adopted the nation's first "death with dignity" law in 1997, shows the deaths "have been safe, legal and rare," Miller said.
Eileen Geller, president of True Compassion Advocates, said she found the statistics chilling.
She called it a tragedy that Washington allows assisted suicide at the same time it's making deep cuts in health care.
"When society starts to tell people that are ill, elderly and disabled that their lives aren't worthy to live, they get the message," she said.
Washington and Oregon are the only two states with voter-approved assisted suicide laws.
In Montana, a court has ruled in an individual lawsuit that residents have a constitutionally protected right to physician-aided suicide, but the ruling is now before the state Supreme Court.
As of last week, pharmacies had reported giving life-ending drugs under the Washington law to 28 patients, the state Department of Health said.
It also said it received 16 reports from attending physicians that are required within 30 days after the death of a patient who received the drugs, even if the person doesn't use them.
Robb said 14 of the people who died after obtaining the drugs were Compassion & Choices clients, and a support volunteer from the organization was present at each death.
"None of our clients died alone and all of them died at home," he said.
Ann Watkins, 68, of Tacoma said she sought and received the medication after being told last month she had two to six months to live. She has cancer in her lungs, brain and bones and has declined chemotherapy, saying it would only extend her life a few months at best.
Watkins said she wants to maintain control over her life and doesn't want to end it in pain.
"I hope I don't have to take the pill, but if I do, thank God," she said.
Washington based its law on the statute in Oregon, where about 400 people have used it to end their lives.
Compassion & Choices said 88 prescriptions were written under the Oregon law in 2008, with 54 of those people taking the lethal medications. Another 22 died of the underlying disease and 12 were alive at the end of the year.
Another six patients with prescriptions from earlier years died from taking the medication in 2008.
On May 21, Linda Fleming of Sequim became the first person under Washington's law to take her life with a deadly prescription of barbiturates. Fleming, 66, who had been diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer, said she feared her remaining days would be filled with pain and mind-numbing medication.
Her daughter Lisa Osborne was at her side. At Tuesday's news conference, she said her mother died "on her own terms, in her way and through her own choices."
She objected to calling her mother's death a suicide.
"Suicide is an expression of despair and disconnection," Osborne said. "My mother was neither despairing nor was she disconnected. She didn't want to die. She wished to live. By choosing her time of death, she chose to live in the present and savor the time she had left."