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Washington State to Allow 'Dignity' Deaths

Washington State to Allow 'Dignity' Deaths

Rachel La Corte

March 02, 2009

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Terminally ill patients with less than six months to live will soon be able to ask their doctors to prescribe them lethal medication in Washington state.

But even though the “Death with Dignity” law takes effect Thursday, people who might seek the life-ending prescriptions could find their doctors conflicted or not willing to write them.

Many doctors are hesitant to talk publicly about where they stand on the issue, said Dr. Tom Preston, a retired cardiologist and board member of Compassion & Choices, the group that campaigned for and supports the law.

“There are a lot of doctors, who in principle, would approve or don’t mind this, but for a lot of social or professional reasons, they don’t want to be involved,” he said.

But Preston said discussions about end-of-life issues between doctor and patient will increase because of the new law, and he thinks that as time goes on more and more doctors who don’t have a religious or philosophical opposition will be open to participating.

“It will be a cultural shift,” he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that it was up to states to regulate medical practice, including assisted suicide, and Washington’s Initiative 1000 was passed by nearly 60 percent of state voters in November.

It became the second state, behind Oregon, to have a voter-approved measure allowing assisted suicide.

In December, a Montana district judge ruled that doctor-assisted suicides are legal. That decision, which was based on an individual lawsuit, is before the Montana Supreme Court. While Montana doctors are allowed to write prescriptions pending the appeal, it’s unknown whether any actually have because there’s no reporting process.

Under the Oregon and Washington laws, physicians and pharmacists are not required to write or fill lethal prescriptions if they are opposed to the law. Some Washington hospitals are opting out of participation, which precludes their doctors from participating on hospital property.

Dr. Stu Farber, director of the palliative care consult service at the University of Washington Medical Center, voted against the measure and doesn’t plan to prescribe lethal medication to his patients for now.

“I am not here to tell people how they should either live their life or the end of their life,” Farber said. “There’s possibly a story out there, in the future, that’s so compelling that maybe I would write a prescription.”

Farber said he would refer patients to Compassion & Choices of Washington, the state’s largest aid-in-dying advocacy group, after talking about how they came to their decision.

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