SEATTLE -- Dr. Richard Wesley has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the incurable disease that lays waste to muscles while leaving the mind intact. He lives with the knowledge that an untimely death is chasing him down, but takes solace in knowing that he can decide exactly when, where and how he will die.
Under Washington state's Death With Dignity Act, his physician has given him a prescription for a lethal dose of barbiturates. He would prefer to die naturally, but if dying becomes protracted and difficult, he plans to take the drugs and die peacefully within minutes.
"It's like the definition of pornography," Wesley, 67, said at his home in Seattle. "I'll know it's time to go when I see it."
Washington followed Oregon in allowing terminally ill patients to get a prescription for drugs that will hasten death. Critics of such laws feared that poor people would be pressured to kill themselves because they or their families could not afford end-of-life care. But the demographics of patients who have gotten the prescriptions are surprisingly different from expected, according to data collected by Oregon and Washington through 2011.
Wesley is emblematic of those who have taken advantage of the law. They are overwhelmingly white, well-educated and financially comfortable. And they are making the choice not because they are in pain but because they want to have the same control over their deaths that they have had over their lives.
Oregon put its Death With Dignity Act in place in 1997, and Washington's law went into effect in 2009. Some officials worried that thousands of people would migrate to both states for the drugs.
"There was a lot of fear that the elderly would be lined up in their RV's at the Oregon border," said Barbara Glidewell, an assistant professor at Oregon Health and Science University.
That has not happened, though the number of people who have taken advantage of the law has risen over time. In the first years, Oregon residents who died using drugs they received under the law accounted for one in 1,000 deaths. The number is now roughly one in 500 deaths. At least 596 Oregonians have died that way since 1997. In Washington, 157 such deaths have been reported, roughly one in 1,000.