Though the numbers are small they offer a glimpse at the demographic and social forces that are combining to advance the end-of-life movement. In both states, those who chose to end their life with the aid of a doctor were predominately white, urban and college educated. The vast majority had cancer, 78 percent in Washington and 75 percent in Oregon, and in both states, more than 60 percent of people were 65 and older, according to state figures. The most common reasons cited for ending life in Washington were a loss of autonomy, dignity and the ability to participate in the things that make life enjoyable.
"Most people we hear from are fairly well educated and they don't like the choices available in the medical world," said Judy Epstein, director of clinical services at Compassion & Choices, who oversees the Denver-based group's volunteers and has been at several assisted deaths. "They are people who want to be proactive and want to ensure they will have a peaceful death on their own terms, that they won't be in a hospital on a ventilator, that they won't be knocked out on drugs or be in pain."
The experience in Oregon and Washington has turned bioethicist Art Caplan, director of the division of bioethics at New York University, from a strong opponent of assisted suicide to a supporter. Before the law in Oregon was enacted, he feared there would be a flood of patients making snap decisions to end their life. Instead, Caplan said he has been shocked by how small the numbers have been and that most people are interested in having a death option in case their illness becomes unbearable. In Oregon last year, about a third of the patients who received a prescription for the drugs never took them.