In the March 13, 2016 TV “60 Minutes” segment titled “Aid in Dying” (retitled “Should the terminally ill control how they die?” in the online transcript, the vaunted investigative news show crossed the line from presenting facts to enthusiastic advocacy.
The stage was set when medical correspondent Dr. John LaPook, an internist and son-in-law of liberal activist Norman Lear, opened the segment by stating:
This is not euthanasia, when a doctor gives a patient a lethal injection. That’s illegal in all 50 states. Aid-in-dying, or what opponents call “assisted suicide” and supporters call “death with dignity,” relies on people taking the medication themselves. Oregon became the first state to legalize it 18 years ago, but because a nurse or doctor is rarely present, it’s remained mostly a private affair, practiced behind closed doors. We wanted to hear from patients and family members who’ve experienced it and are fighting to make it legal nationwide. (Emphasis added.)
If you go to the link for the transcript, you will also see “related videos” with segment extras not included on the TV show.
One titled “ethical concerns” is an interview with Dr. Katrina Hedberg, state epidemiologist of the Oregon Public Health Division, to discuss “ethical concerns raised by her state sanctioning aid-in-dying”. Not surprisingly, Dr. Hedberg strenuously denies that assisted suicide is a danger for the “disenfranchised” or for medical economic or family burden reasons. Instead, she says “the opposite has happened” despite cases like Barbara Wagner’s.
In the segment extra “How does the medicine work?”, the assisted suicide doctor explains that the medicine simply just “shuts off the brain” starting “at the top” where consciousness is and then goes to “the bottom” of the brain where heartbeat and breathing occur. Not a very accurate or scientific explanation but designed to reassure the public.
In the televised segment, there was only a very short interview with Dr. William Toffler, National Director of Physicians for Compassionate Care but only identified by Dr. LaPook as a doctor “who’s taken care of terminally ill patients for 40 years” and whose wife died of cancer in comfort and without physician-assisted suicide. Dr. Toffler’s practical and ethical concerns were ignored or dismissed by Dr. LaPook.
The rest of the segment involved interviews with people fighting for physician-assisted suicide for themselves or a relative and an assisted suicide doctor. The usual lethal overdose drug and the method for using it for suicide were described in detail.
A major portion of the segment were interviews with Brittany Maynard’s husband and Dr. Eric Walsh, the Oregon physician who prescribed the overdose for the 29 year old woman with a gliobastoma brain tumor whose countdown to assisted suicide became a media sensation in October, 2014. Brittany’s suicide was described by her husband as Brittany just going to sleep and slowly stopping to breathe. Not surprisingly, it was after Brittany’s suicide that most mainstream media then changed the usual term “physician-assisted suicide” to softer terms like “aid in dying” or “physician-assisted death”.
Ironically, 60 Minutes aired a segment on March 29, 2015-just 5 months after Brittany Maynard took her lethal overdose-titled “Killing Cancer“ The segment followed patients in a year long clinical trial who had gliobastoma brain cancers like Brittany’s. Many of these patients saw their cancers disappear after being treated with a reengineered polio virus. This was touted as a great breakthrough by “60 Minutes” but went unmentioned in this segment.
Another interview was with a man in hospice who was being seen by Dr. Walsh but, as the segment stated:
Though usually extremely effective at keeping people comfortable, in rare instances, standard hospice care doesn’t work well enough. In those cases, Dr. Walsh says, one option is something called palliative sedation.
Dr. Eric Walsh: When the physician decides that suffering is intolerable, the physician prescribes a medication which puts the patient in a coma…The nurse administers it. It’s given until the person is asleep. The person sleeps for three days, five days. I’ve had someone live 10 days, still excreting, still breathing, with the family at the bedside wondering, “When is this going to end?”
When an assisted suicide doctor himself “decides that suffering is intolerable”, prescribes a intravenous continuous medication to be administered by a nurse to speed a patient’s death, how is that NOT euthanasia?
Sadly, the last interview with a woman dying of colon cancer illustrates the dangers of assisted suicide for so-called “altruistic” reasons that would also appeal to many non-terminally ill but debilitated or suicidal people:
Dr. Jon LaPook: And it sounds like from what you’re saying your decision to
perhaps take the medication will be a final act—
Elizabeth Wallner: Absolutely.
Dr. Jon LaPook: –of protecting your son.
Elizabeth Wallner: Absolutely. I just want him to remember me laughing and, you know, giving him a hard time, and telling him to brush his teeth, and knowing that I would– I would, you know, walk across the sun for him. (Emphasis added)
The public deserves a better and more comprehensive discussion about physician-assisted suicide. Such discussions have been occurring in state legislatures where physician-assisted suicide groups like Compassion and Choices relentlessly push for legalization and medical, disability, pro-life and other groups testify to the real facts and dangers.
There must be something to this opposition since so far this year 8 states have rejected physician-assisted suicide bills.