Western psychology professor Ethan Remmel lived with incurable cancer for more than a year. He underwent 10 months of chemotherapy, which caused fatigue and sickness that were hard to bear. He rarely felt like himself. Whenever he stopped treatment, he faced unyielding pain, said Grace Wang, Remmel’s partner and associate professor of environmental studies at Huxley College of the Environment.
At his home on June 13, Remmel ended his life under Washington state’s Death with Dignity Act. The law allows people who are terminally ill to take lethal pills prescribed by their doctors.
Remmel’s family, friends, colleagues and students came together on June 28 for a memorial at Zuanich Point Park in Squalicum Harbor. They shared stories, listened to some of Remmel’s favorite songs and read some of his favorite poems. It was his birthday. He would have turned 42.
Since taking effect on March 5, 2009, 152 people have received lethal medication under the law, according to the Washington State Department of Health.
Washington’s law is similar to one enacted by Oregon voters in 1997. Oregon was the first state to allow people with terminal illnesses to ask their doctors for lethal medication. Lawmakers in Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Hawaii are considering similar measures.
Death with Dignity Act
Nearly 58 percent of Washington state voters in the 2008 election voted in favor of the Death with Dignity Act.
The law lets people living with deadly illnesses maintain some level of control over their lives, said Robb Miller, executive director of Compassion and Choices of Washington. The nonprofit organization supports terminally ill people seeking to end their lives.
“For some patients, having control improves the quality of life at the end of life,” Miller said.
Eileen Geller, a registered nurse and president of True Compassion Advocates, a Seattle-based nonprofit corporation that promotes awareness and prevention of suicide and assisted suicide, said providing lethal medications to ill people or seniors might pressure them to choose death simply to avoid being a burden or financial burden to loved ones.
“This act ends up steering some people toward assisted suicide,” Geller said. “The solution is to create compassionate, practical and helpful resources, not hand them lethal medications.”
The term “assisted suicide” is controversial among supporters of Washington’s law. Compassion and Choices prefers the term “aid in dying.”
The Death with Dignity Act does not constitute assisted suicide, according to the text of the law. State reports are not allowed to use the term.
Washington State Senate Bill 5378, introduced during the Senate’s most recent legislative session but never brought to a vote, would require doctors to list assisted suicide as the cause of death for people who choose to end their lives under the law. Sen. Margarita Prentice, a Democrat from Renton, Wash., is the primary sponsor.
Although the bill stalled during the most recent legislative session, it could be reintroduced in the future, according to Senate rules.
Currently, when a person dies of assisted suicide in Washington, doctors are required to list a person’s underlying terminal illness on the death certificate. In Oregon, death with dignity is listed as the cause of death.
Miller said listing assisted suicide as a cause of death would make it easier for extremists opposed to the Death with Dignity Act to search public death records to find and target doctors who prescribe life-ending medication.
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Death With Dignity Act May Face Amendment