Four cancer patients in 2018 requested a fatal dose of drugs, prescribed by three physicians, the report says. Two succumbed to their diseases before they could end their lives.
According to the report, the two patients who used the law were a 72-year-old woman with breast cancer that had spread to her lung and an 81-year-old woman with lung cancer.
The 81-year-old woman appears to be Corinne “Teeny” Zimmermann, a Palisades resident who had lung cancer and died July 15, 2018, after ingesting medication prescribed under the D.C. law. Relatives said she faced challenges obtaining the drugs but appreciated the option in her final days.
“For her, it provided enormous comfort to know she could die on her own terms,” her grandson Percy Metcalfe said.
Neither profile in the report fits the case of Mary Klein, a 70-year-old Crestwood resident with ovarian cancer who became the public face for the aid-in-dying movement in the District. Last year, The Washington Post chronicled Klein’s story and her challenges in finding a doctor willing to prescribe her the drugs before her August 2018 medication-assisted death.
Health officials declined to address the apparent discrepancy, citing privacy concerns. They said the report may not include people who requested fatal medication if the city did not receive records of the pharmacy dispensing the drugs.
The D.C. Council passed the Death With Dignity Act on an 11-to-2 vote in late 2016, joining a growing number of jurisdictions tackling the emotional subject.
Maine and New Jersey passed laws to allow terminally ill patients to end their lives this year, joining California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. A 2009 Montana Supreme Court ruling said nothing in state law prohibited the practice. Similar legislation in Maryland failed this year after the state Senate deadlocked.
Advocates for the practice say such laws give terminally ill patients autonomy in their final months and an opportunity to avoid unnecessary suffering.
Critics say people could be steered to early deaths to reduce medical costs if the practice becomes widespread. They have raised a host of other concerns ranging from the sanctity of life to the potential for racial disparities in how the law is used. The American Medical Association recently reaffirmed its opinion that “physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.”
Under the Death With Dignity Act, terminally ill patients must make two oral requests and one written request for life-ending medication. Two doctors must be involved, and two witnesses must attest that the patient’s decision is made voluntarily and without undue influence. Patients must take the medication on their own.
Officials with Compassion and Choices, an organization that advocates for aid-in-dying laws, said the slow start wasn’t surprising and may have been complicated by congressional attempts to overturn the law in 2017.
“If people heard of the law, they thought it died, or they still haven’t heard about it,” said Donna Smith, an organizer for the group in the District and Maryland. “This is the access campaign now, which takes three to five years to get off the ground.”
According to Compassion and Choices, four D.C. hospitals have policies in place that allow doctors to prescribe fatal doses of medication. The city does not make public which doctors participate.
Smith said her group drew 80 medical professionals to a training with health regulators in August 2018 and is planning another in October. She also has been giving presentations to senior citizen groups about end-of-life care.
Kristen Hanson of the Patients Rights Action Fund, which opposes assisted suicide, said the D.C. report lacks critical details, such as how many doctors have registered with the program and whether the patients who used the law faced complications after ingesting the medication.
“What we do know is that this public policy is dangerous to many . . . whose lives are at grave risk of mistakes, coercion and even abuse,” Hanson, whose late husband advocated against similar laws, said in a statement.