Assisted Suicide

The Law:

Legalized by a vote of the people in 2009, Washington State’s physician-assisted suicide law permits people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness to request a lethal dose of medication from a physician.

Washington State’s assisted suicide law requirements include:
• Adult competency
• State of Washington residency
• Diagnosis of six months or less to live
• Oral request with a 15-day waiting period before writing of prescription
• Self-administration of life ending medication
• Counseling if in the doctor’s opinion the patient’s judgment is impaired by depression or psychiatric disorder
• Recommendation of notification of next of kin
• Information collected by the Washington State Department of Health (DOH), not a public record and not available for inspection by the public
• Death certificate to list underlying terminal disease as cause of death
• No penalty for health care provider assisting in good faith

Dangerous Law:

Based on Catholic Teaching and concern for the common good, WSCC opposes assisted suicide, noting also that it is dangerous public policy.  It places vulnerable people at risk for abuse as the law provides inadequate safeguards:

  1. Proof of state residency is only requested by the doctor and it is easy to obtain.  There is no minimum period required before making a request for a lethal medication.
  2. Six months to live is only an estimate and many people live significantly longer than six months.
  3. Physicians are not required to be present when the person takes the lethal dose and rarely are.  There is no requirement for anyone to witness the self-administration of the lethal medication.  Thus, there is no effective protection for vulnerable people from being victims of abuse.
  4. It is well established that depression is a normal stage of dying. Yet mental health evaluations are not required for everyone requesting assisted suicide.  In Washington State, people requesting a lethal medication are rarely referred for a mental health evaluation.  In fact, during the first six years for which reports are available only 25 out of a total of 725 requestors have been referred for psychological evaluations (less than 4 percent).
  5. There is no requirement for a person’s family to be notified of the request for assisted suicide; there is only a recommendation that the family be notified.
  6. DOH collects a minimum of information about people who have requested assisted suicide, and has no authority to investigate or sanction non-reporters.
  7. Assisted suicide cannot be stated as the cause of death on death certificates.  So, doctors cannot list the true cause of death and prosecutors are obstructed in pursuing suspicious deaths.
  8. Health care providers cannot be held accountable because the law grants them immunity from criminal charges, civil lawsuits and professional disciplinary measures.

Assisted suicide is legal in two other states:  Oregon and Vermont.  In two other states, Montana and New Mexico, court rulings have created uncertain legal situations. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that rights granted under the state’s living will law form the basis for permitting doctors to intentionally prescribe lethal drug overdoses for the purpose of assisted suicide.  However, the court did not officially legalize assisted suicide but said that, if charged with assisting a suicide, a doctor could use the patient’s request as a defense. In New Mexico, while statutes continue to list assisted suicide as a fourth-degree felony, the practice was made legal through the courts in early 2014. The 2nd District Court in Albuquerque ruled that New Mexico doctors may legally prescribe lethal drugs to assist terminally ill people with suicide. Recently a state appellate court overturned the district court decision. The matter is pending before the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Since 1997, at least 859 people in Oregon have died by lethal medications.  In the six years for which data on assisted suicide in Washington State is available, more than 485 people have committed assisted suicide (Washington has about twice the population as Oregon).  Since Vermont made assisted suicide legal in 2013, two people are reported to have died as a result of ingesting a lethal prescription.

Even though reporting is required under the assisted suicide laws, it is impossible to know the actual number of deaths from assisted suicide because there is no government oversight or investigation.  Because the information collected by Washington State’s Department of Health is not categorized as public record, researchers are prevented from making an independent assessment of how the law is being implemented.  The state only provides summarized data in an annual statistical report.