Washington’s Death With Dignity Act – Part 1

What is the Act?

Public support for physician-assisted death (also known as medical aid-in-dying or death with dignity) has ebbed and flowed over the years.  In Washington, however, support for such legislation culminated in the passage of the Washington Death with Dignity Act, Initiative 1000 (RCW 70.245, or the “Act”) in November of 2008, effective on March 5th, 2009.  The Act permits terminally ill adults to request and digest lethal medication, subsequently ending their life.

Qualified Persons

Qualified persons permitted to request lethal medication, as defined in the Act, are limited to competent adults afflicted with a terminal illness who reside in Washington state. A competent person, “has the ability to make and communicate an informed decision to health care providers, including communication through persons familiar with the patient’s manner of communicating if those persons are available”.  RCW 70.245.010.  Essentially, a competent person is of sound mind.  Therefore, persons suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or some form of dementia are generally barred from requesting and receiving medical aid-in-dying.  Additionally, persons in the early stages of either illness, including those who remain competent, may not qualify for medical aid-in-dying as they fail to meet the “Terminal Illness” standard.  This standard is “an incurable and irreversible disease that has been medically confirmed and will, within reasonable medical judgement, produce death within six months”. Id. (Emphasis added).  Persons diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s can live for many years after their initial diagnoses, hence the reason why they do not meet the standard for terminal illnesses required under the Act.

Questions

The Act attempts to be as specific as possible in outlining the requirements necessary to qualify for a physician-assisted death.  However, as with many aspects of law, gray areas and unknowns in the Act do exist.  If you have questions about the Act or whether a physician-assisted death is right for you, we would be pleased to sit down with you and help you better understand the law and how it may apply in your personal situation.

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