- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 23, 2009

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — A 66-year-old woman with terminal cancer has become the first person to die under Washington state’s new assisted suicide law, an advocacy group said Friday.

Linda Fleming, of Sequim, died Thursday night after taking drugs prescribed under the “Death with Dignity” law that took effect in March, said Compassion & Choices of Washington.

The organization said Fleming was diagnosed last month with advanced pancreatic cancer. She would have had to have been diagnosed by two doctors as terminal in order to qualify for assisted suicide.

The group said Fleming died at home with her family, her dog and her physician at her bedside.

“The pain became unbearable, and it was only going to get worse,” Fleming said in a statement released by the organization.

A physician prescribed the medication, but under the law, patients must administer the drugs themselves.

Chris Carlson, who campaigned against the law with the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide, said the death was “a sad occasion and it diminishes us all.”

The new law was approved in November with nearly 60 percent of the vote, making Washington the second state in the nation with voter-approved assisted suicide legislation. It is based on a 1997 Oregon measure, under which about 400 people have ended their lives.

Under both states’ laws, physicians and pharmacists are not required to write or fill lethal prescriptions if they are opposed to the law. Some hospitals have opted out of the law, which precludes their doctors from participating on hospital property.

In December, a Montana district judge ruled that doctor-assisted suicides are legal. That decision, based on an individual lawsuit rather than a state law or voter initiative, is before the Montana Supreme Court, but doctors there are allowed to write prescriptions for life-ending drugs pending the appeal. It is not known if any have done so because no reporting process was in place.

In Washington, any patient requesting fatal medication must be at least 18, declared competent and be a state resident.

Two doctors would have to certify that the patient has a terminal condition and six months or less to live. The patient must also make two oral requests, 15 days apart, and make a written request witnessed by two people.

As of Friday, the state Department of Health has received six forms from pharmacists saying they have dispensed the life-ending drugs.

The state has also received five forms from an individual declaring a request for medication to “end my life in a humane and dignified manner.”

The Health Department will report annually on the ages, genders and illnesses of the people who file forms with the state, but the individual forms people complete are exempt from state open records laws.

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