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Originally published September 9, 2009 at 12:13 AM | Page modified September 9, 2009 at 11:06 AM

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28 have sought life-ending prescriptions

Twenty-eight terminally ill Washingtonians have received life-ending prescriptions under a law that took effect in March, according to the Department of Health. Sixteen of them have since died.

Seattle Times staff reporter

How the law works

A person must meet these requirements to qualify for a lethal prescription under Washington state's "Death with Dignity" law:

• Be at least 18, declared competent, and a resident of Washington.

• Have been determined by the attending physician and another consulting physician to have a terminal disease from which they will die within six months.

• Make an oral and written request, signed and dated by the patient and witnessed by two other people. One of the witnesses must not be a relative of the patient, entitled to the patient's estate, anyone tied to a health facility where the patient is being treated or resides or the attending physician.

• Repeat the oral request to the attending physician at least 15 days after making the initial oral request.

• Wait two days after signing the written request before the prescription is written.

The Associated Press

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Twenty-eight terminally ill Washingtonians have received life-ending prescriptions under a law that took effect in March, according to the Department of Health.

Sixteen of them have since died, although the state will not release statistics saying how many of them died of natural causes, without taking the drugs. Supporters say they know of 11 people who used their prescriptions to end their lives.

That puts Washington about on pace with Oregon, the only other state to allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients, supporters said.

"Deaths under the Death With Dignity Act have been safe, legal and rare," Robb Miller, executive director of Compassion & Choices of Washington, said at a news conference Tuesday.

To opponents, any deaths that are hastened under the act are too many.

"We ought not be celebrating numbers of people who have died from a lethal drug overdose," said Eileen Geller, president of True Compassion Advocates. She referred to the statistics release as "marketing" by supporters. "We don't believe assisted suicide is the answer to anything," she said.

I-1000, passed last November, allows physicians to prescribe lethal medication to patients predicted to have less than six months to live, if the patient is deemed mentally competent. Patients must initiate the request and administer the medication themselves.

Linda Fleming was the first. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the Sequim woman didn't want prolonged suffering. Her daughter, Lisa Osborne, said Fleming was not "feebleminded," she was not rash in her decision, "and probably the most important of all, she was not alone." She died in May, able to spend her last hours with loved ones.

Geller and other opponents worry that old or vulnerable people will be pressured into using the law, and that they may suffer from untreated depression.

Ann Watkins, a Tacoma woman who appeared at the news conference Tuesday, said that's not what's happening with her. She was practically upbeat — secure in her decision to seek out life-ending medication, she said.

Diagnosed first with breast cancer, then lung and brain and bone cancers, the 68-year-old retiree said doctors gave her five months, tops. "Everybody has to die sometime," she said.

Doctors told her chemotherapy might extend her life for a few months, but Watkins said she declined. Right now, she feels pretty good, aside from some pain in her bones.

"My mother had cancer. She was in pain," Watkins said. "My brother had cancer. He was in pain. I said, 'I'm not going to put myself through that.' "

Since her diagnoses, she's made a point to connect with friends and family and to get out of what she jokingly calls her "five-mile radius." She took a trip to Ocean Shores and visited a niece in California.

"She treated me like a princess," Watkins said of her niece.

Watkins has received her prescription and plans to act on it when the pain becomes too much.

"I have it stashed," she said. Unable to resist a joke, she added, "I hope I can remember where it is."

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

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