The farewell party for Betsy DavisA debate in the American state of Iowa over the legalisation of assisted suicide prompted the Des Moines Register to survey how well in works.
In California, where it became legal on June 9, stories are already emerging that the letter of the law is not being observed. California multi-media and performance artist Betsy Davis died on July 23, one of the first to take advantage of the new law. She had ALS and since she was too weak to drink the lethal drugs herself, she was propped up by friends and someone, following instructions from a doctor, held the cup for her – which was probably illegal. The standard lethal drug, Seconal, was not available, so her friends mixed up a cocktail of drugs, hoping that they would work properly. She took four hours to die, which is not the instant death that most people expect.
In Oregon where assisted suicide has been legal since 1998, and in Washington state, where it has been legal since 2009, the statistics from 1,642 deaths convey a mixed message.
Complications: about 2.5% experience complications, such as regurgitation, seizures, or waking up.
Incomplete records: in nearly 30% of cases, records are incomplete, even for important issues like complications.
Prolonged death: in Oregon the mean time before death was 25 minutes, but one person took four days.
No data: in Vermont and Montana, deaths are not tracked at all. There are no records. “Assisted suicide is nearly untraceable. There is minimal reporting and tracking,” Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in California, told The Register. “It almost appears as if the practice of assisted suicide has deliberately been made secretive, all with the claim of patient confidentiality.”
California’s assisted suicide law came into effect on June 9. Betsy Davis, an artist with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, was one of the first to take advantage of the legislation. She drank a lethal cocktail on July 23, after a long party with close friends. I’m afraid that we missed the story at the time.
Reading her sister’s account of Betsy’s death, which is full of loving sorrow at her passing, I was struck by how quickly Californians started to ignore all the careful safeguards. It is clearly specified in the law that the person must “self-administer” the drug. But she was too weak to hold the cup and drink it quickly, so her friends held it for her. They may have broken the law.
People tend to think that a lethal barbiturate brings about death quickly. This wasn’t true in Betsy’s case – she lingered on for four hours. Given that the drug was a homemade cocktail of morphine, pentobarbital and chloral hydrate which smelled like paint, her friends were “lucky” that it worked. Some assisted suicide patients in Oregon have woken up to discover that their suicide has failed.
It wasn’t a good beginning for the law.
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