An assisted suicide group has announced it will compile a directory of physicians who will assist terminally ill patients seeking lethal medication prescriptions after a Washington state assisted suicide law takes effect on Thursday. The group expects a “cultural shift” in the state will encourage more doctors to assist in suicides.
The move follows the passage of Washington’s Initiative 1000, which won nearly 60 percent of the vote in the November 2008 election.
Under the law, two doctors must certify that the suicidal patient has a terminal condition and has six months or less to live. The patient must be a state resident and must make two oral requests 15 days apart and submit a written request witnessed by two people.
Physicians and pharmacists are not required to write or fill lethal prescriptions if they are opposed to doing so.
Some hospitals are opting out of participation, which prevents doctors from participating in assisted suicides on hospital property, the Associated Press reports.
The group Compassion & Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society, backed the ballot measure.
The group’s executive director Rob Miller told the Associated Press the group is now compiling a directory listing physicians who are not opting out of the law and pharmacies willing to fill lethal prescriptions for the suicidal terminally ill.
"Physicians don't understand yet exactly how the law works," Miller explained. "Whenever there's lack of understanding, there tends to be some reluctance."
Dr. Tom Preston, a retired cardiologist who is a board member of Compassion & Choices, told the Associated Press that many doctors hesitate to talk publicly about their stand on assisted suicide.
"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 claimed, saying he thinks more and more doctors who don’t have religious or philosophical opposition to assisted suicide will be open to participating.
"It will be a cultural shift," he said.
However, Dr. Linda Wrede-Seaman, a family physician and palliative care specialist in Yakima, told the Associated Press that a terminal diagnosis is never absolutely certain.
“There is no question in my mind that, if this is too easy of a task, people will die prematurely," she said.
Washington state is the second state to have a voter-approved measure allowing assisted suicide. Under Oregon’s law, affirmed in a 1997 election, more than 340 people, mainly cancer patients, have killed themselves.
A Montana district judge has also ruled that doctor-assisted suicides are legal. The case is now before the Montana Supreme Court. Though Montana doctors are allowed to write lethal prescriptions pending the appeal, there is no reporting process and it is unknown whether any doctors have helped patients commit suicide.
The Portland, Oregon-based group Physicians for Compassionate Care Educational Foundation (PCCEF) argues that allowing doctor assisted suicide undermines trust in the patient-physician relationship and changes the role of the physician from the traditional role of healer to that of the “executioner.”
The group points out that such a “culture shift” endangers the value that society places on life, especially the lives of the most vulnerable and those nearing death.
PCCEF has launched a site encouraging physicians, medical caregivers and concerned citizens to pledge to provide “optimal comfort care” for the terminally ill until “natural death.”
According to a recent edition of the magazine Franciscan Way, PCCEF's president, Dr. Charles Bentz, increased his efforts against assisted suicide after a doctor at a Catholic hospital in Oregon referred one of Bentz’s cancer patients for an assisted suicide.
The Franciscan Way reports that Compassion & Choices had well-placed supporters on Washington newspaper editorial boards and had influenced enough administrators in Catholic hospitals to keep them from opposing Washington’s Initiative 1000.
According to Bentz, the Catholic health care network “could have financed the opposition to the initiative from petty cash if they wanted to… but instead they chose to remain on the sidelines.”