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Risa Denenberg

Risa Denenberg
Seattle, Washington, USA
February 25
Smart Girls Ink
I also blog about end-of-life issues at http://risaden.blogspot.com/


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APRIL 26, 2010 7:36PM

Some Data from the Washington State Death with Dignity Act

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I thought some might be interested to know what we have learned in Washington State during the first year with our new law. The Washington State Death with Dignity Act was passed by voter initiative on November 4, 2008 and became law on March 5, 2009. In the language of the Act,

"The law allows terminally ill adults seeking to end their lives in a humane and dignified manner to request lethal doses of medication from physicians."

All of the data cited here can be viewed on Washington State Department of Health Web Site where statistics for the first year are reported.  

The number of requests for medication is not known, although I personally know that many persons seeking to use the law never made it through the process which requires having two physicians agree, making three requests (2 oral and one written), and a waiting period. In some parts of the state, there are no participating physicians, meaning the law is meaningless to many who would like to use it.

The health department only receives and collects data for persons who complete the complex process and actually receive the medication for use in hastening their death. In the first year of reporting, 63 persons received lethal doses of medication (either secobarbital or pentobarbital) and 47 of these died during this time period. Of those who died, 36 died following ingesting the medication and 7 died without taking their medication. Status for 4 of the deaths is unknown at this time (whether or not they took the medication or died without it). 

Of the 47 participants who received medication and died during the twelve months from March 5 2009- March 5 2010: 


  • their ages ranged from 48-95 years
  • 79% had cancer; 9% had neurological conditions such as ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and 12% had other chronic illnesses such as lung and heart disease. 
  • 98% were white, non-Hispanic
  • 46% were married
  • 100% cited loss of autonomy among the reasons for requesting medications; 91% cited loss of ability to enjoy life; 82% cited loss of dignity
  • 94% of the deaths occurred at home
  • 72% were enrolled in hospice at the time of death


The time to unconsciousness following taking the medication ranged from 1-20 minutes and the time from ingestion to death ranged from 9 minutes to 28 hours. Most died in less than 90 minutes. Three persons vomited after taking the medication and five awakened after ingestion, although all persons ingesting the medication died.

As an aside, I am aware that not all of the participants were given pre-medications to prevent nausea and vomiting, and some were unable to ingest all of the medication.  Of the deaths that have been attended by volunteers of Compassion and Choices (accounting for about 80% of them) all took pre-medications and most died within 20 minutes. 


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Interesting facts . . . I would not have thought to look it up, but am glad that you presented them.
Thank you for this.

I'm glad that these kinds of statistics are kept, so that people can see first hand what is involved.

I do find it amazingly intriguing that 100% cite loss of autonomy as their reason for requesting this procedure.

I'm beginning to believe that the term needs to be changed from "death with dignity" to "autonomy of life", and perhaps that subtle but important change will help more people understand the need for this service.

I also believe that, like abortion, assisted suicide should be seen merely as a medical procedure, not a moral issue
Very interesting. Thanks for summarizing and interpreting this. I think it's clear that having a trained helper of some kind makes a real difference. And it sounds like abortion in that having the legal right isn't enough if there aren't willing providers in your area, which would be a problem many places if this were further legalized.
Really interesting information! Thanks for posting it. I have always wondered why more people didn't take advantage of this option in Washington but it sounds like it is actually hard to get through the vetting process. Also, was interested to see that Compassion & Choices was involved in so many deaths. I was under the impression they did not attend actual deaths, but that may only be the case in states where assisted suicide is NOT legal. Thanks again for the post.
Thank you for this post. It answers many of the questions (though I realize there were not a huge amount of respondents to gather information from) I had, and hopefully those of others. This needs to be read by many.

There percent were just distruaght over a Seattle Mariners game.
But seriously, it's good someone is actually respecting people's wishes.
I checked the state records for number of total deaths. The most recent year I could find was 2008 whene there were 48,551. So around 1 of every thousand people, 99.9%, who died that year did so by assisted suicide. Since it was the first year, there's no telling how representative it will turn out to be.

It could have been a little inflated because had it been around the previous year, some choosing to die in its first months may have done so earlier.

On the other hand, after it's been around for a while, it could get better known, be more readily available, and lose whatever slight stigma it may have initially had.

Thanks for providing some perspective.
I am thinking that Rick Lucke would be interested to read this. He has reposted something he wrote on the topic of dignity which dovetails with the facts contained in your informative post. I'll let him know.

Thanks for posting this.

Yep, Susanne, you’re right; it is interesting. Thanks for the heads-up.

I think we need to rethink our views on suffering and what we can do to end it when possible. There is no real value in prolonging suffering simply to appease an antiquated view that we must prolong life at ALL cost without consideration of “quality of life”.

Such decisions should be private, personal, and legal. These stats show how the suffering can be minimized even in the process of dying.

Very nice, and surprising Risa, thank-you also for visiting my post, I know it may seem hasty and presumptuous, but I do strongly feel that people don't know all the whys of suffering. Incredibly there are people that are young that get into bad accidents that are in comatose states for sometimes a 3 weeks, other people can be in other apathetic terms, there are many other states of being that people may not truly understand why. I know that for people who are terminal the end is nearer than the other way around. But ultimately I am a fatalist. I don't like to see extreme things being done, in my eyes it creates a false sense of being able to not determine the end, whether it be grave or otherwise. I find that a hard argument. People get away with too much today, and just like the favor of Viagra you will get people that do not need it to play around with it, just because it's available. That would be more my fear, that people that would be tired, or not happy with life would be looking to "give up", there are probably other examples as well that are thought of from a medical perspective as well as a psychological and as well as a sociological standard on the what, how, when, and where would take place. But I would almost be willing to assume that most people facing this rather daunting task, wouldn't be all too happy, especially where family is concerned. Understanding that in a realistic reference that a person were suffering it would be inevitable that death were immenient, then perhaps, but still always with the forbearance that we do not understand all of lifes unpleasanties, and would still prefer to refrain from the discussions that choose to end what is life, but instead allow death it's natural entrance, where closure is often the last vision.
This is interesting. Oregon's Death with Dignity Law has been sucessful. More folks sign up than use it; seems to give peace of mind that you are in control.
Thank you , Risa.