Washington’s new assisted suicide law has been put to use. A 66-year-old Sequim woman with pancreatic cancer died Thursday night after taking the lethal dosage of drugs prescribed to her.
How do we know this?
Compassion & Choices of Washington, which campaigned for the Death with Dignity law last fall, announced the woman’s death as the first under the new law. The Department of Health said last month that the law prohibited it from being the one to make such an announcement.
After I questioned how Compassion & Choices can be sure of its assertion – given the mandated secrecy surrounding the identities of patients who request aid with dying – spokesman Steve Hopcraft admitted it can’t. The group is working with “several” terminally ill patients but he doesn’t know whether it has contact with every patient who is taking the legal steps required to end his or her life.
The state Department of Health has received six forms from pharmacists who have dispensed lethal drugs. It has no forms from doctors reporting that their patients have subsequently taken the drugs and died. Doctors have 30 days to file those forms, which are exempt from public disclosure.
The uncertainty points out a flaw that troubled us last fall when we considered whether to endorse the assisted suicide initiative. We endorsed it with reservations:
…the act could use beefier public disclosure and mental evaluation requirements. I-1000 would forbid the state from recording assisted suicides on death certificates, limiting public scrutiny of the practice. The measure also allows doctors to attest to a patient’s mental state without the benefit of a psychiatric evaluation. State lawmakers should address such concerns if I-1000 passes.
Public support for such changes might increase later this year, when the health department releases its first report on who availed themselves of the Death with Dignity law. Depending on what the agency deems can be released without breaching confidentiality, we could end up knowing nothing more than a number.