New York Times Article, Dr. Timothy Quill Promote Physician-Assisted Suicide by Starvation and Dehydration

Physician-assisted suicide is not just about someone taking a lethal overdose of medicine prescribed by a doctor. For many years, Compassion and Choices, the former and more appropriately named Hemlock Society) has also promoted VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) as just other end of life option they insist is legal in all states, even those without an assisted suicide law.

Now in a disturbing new New York Times article  “The VSED Exit: A Way to Speed Up Dying, Without Asking Permission , columnist Paula Span (who admits that she was “also a speaker, and received an honorarium and some travel costs.”) writes about conference on VSED, “billed as the nation’s first, at Seattle University School of Law which drew about 220 participants — physicians and nurses, lawyers, bioethicists, academics of various stripes, theologians, hospice staff.” In her article, Ms. Span acknowledges that VSED “causes death by dehydration, usually within seven to 14 days.” (Emphasis added)

Thus, VSED death is no more “natural” than physician-assisted suicide by lethal overdose. It just takes longer.

One of the featured speakers was Dr. Timothy Quill, described as “a veteran palliative care physician at the University of Rochester Medical Center.” Unmentioned is that Dr. Quill is a long-time activist for physician-assisted suicide and 2012 president of the American Academy of Palliative and Hospice Medicine which is now “neutral” on assisted suicide. He was also the respondent in the 1997 US Supreme Court Case Vacco v Quill arguing for the constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide.

VSED AS A “REASONABLE” OPTION FOR “PEOPLE WITH SERIOUS ILLNESSES WHO WANT TO HASTEN THEIR DEATHS”

Although Dr. Quill claims that VSED is “generally quite comfortable at the beginning”, he also states that “You want a medical partner to manage your symptoms,” because “It’s harder than you think.”

How hard?

In 2000, Quill and Dr. Ira Byock (a palliative care doctor who speaks against legalizing physician-assisted suicide while also supporting VSED and terminal sedation) wrote an article titled “Responding to Intractable Terminal Suffering: The Role of Terminal Sedation and Voluntary Refusal of Food and Fluids”.

In the article, they wrote about the case of BG, a radiology doctor with an eventually fatal brain tumor, who “did not want to die but was fearful of becoming physically dependent and intellectually impaired.”

As they wrote: “BG stopped eating and drinking. The initial week was physically comfortable and personally meaningful.” However, “On day 10, BG became confused and agitated and began having hallucinations. The peace and comfort that he and his family had achieved began to unravel.”

His intravenous morphine drip to control his headaches was increased to cause terminal sedation and he died.

Byock and Quill conclude that   “Medicine cannot sanitize dying or provide perfect solutions for all clinical dilemmas. When unacceptable suffering persists despite standard palliative measures, terminal sedation and voluntary refusal of food and fluids are imperfect but useful last-resort options that can be openly pursued.” (Emphasis added).

THERE ARE NO RELIGIOUS OBJECTIONS TO VSED?

In her article, Ms. Span makes an effort to make VSED sound morally and ethically acceptable when she states:

“Moreover, major religious groups have yet to declare whether they consider VSED an acceptable act of self-determination or a suicide, anathema in most faiths.”

Actually, many people-religious and non-religious- as well as disability groups like Not Dead Yet have objected to VSED.

And for Catholics, the Vatican Charter for Health Care Workers specifically states :

“The administration of food and liquids, even artificially, is part of the normal treatment always due to the patient when this is not burdensome for him: their undue suspension could be real and properly so-called euthanasia.” (Emphasis added)

In addition, the Charter also addresses the concept of terminal sedation:

Sometimes the systematic use of narcotics which reduce the consciousness of the patient is a cloak for the frequently unconscious wish of the health care worker to discontinue relating to the dying person. In this case it is not so much the alleviation of the patient’s suffering that is sought as the convenience of those in attendance. The dying person is deprived of the possibility of ‘living his own life’, by reducing him to a state of unconsciousness unworthy of a human being. This is why the administration of narcotics for the sole purpose of depriving the dying person of a conscious end is ‘a truly deplorable practice’.” (Emphasis added)

EXPANDING VSED

As Ms. Span observes there are “obstacles” still to overcome in the quest for universal acceptance of VSED including whether people with dementia can “pre-choose” VSED by request or “living will”  while still well.  Another issue includes legal cases where even non-terminal residents or their relatives sue to make nursing homes stop even spoon-feeding.

The Compassion and Choices death machine rolls on and in many different directions but the goal remains death on demand. Apathy is not an option.

Is Compassion and Choices Aiming to Become the “Planned Parenthood” of Euthanasia?

With over $22 million in 2015 net assets,  a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator, enthusiastic media coverage and a new  Federal Policy Agenda for 2016 and Beyond” , Compassion and Choices increasingly appears to be following in the 4 star, politically and media supported, $1.3 billion dollar revenue ($528 million in government taxpayer funding) steps of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

While Compassion and Choices claims that it just “works to improve care and expand choice at the end of life”, it also admits that “We employ  educational training programs, media outreach and online and print publications to change healthcare practice, inform policy-makers, influence public opinion and empower individuals.” (Emphasis added)

THE PALLIATIVE AND HOSPICE CONNECTION

Compassion and Choices has worked for decades not only to legalize physician-assisted suicide in every state but also to normalize and integrate physician-assisted suicide into medical practice and reaches out to established medical groups like the American Academy of Palliative and Hospice Medicine (AAPHM).

Currently, Oregon reports that 92.2% of its physician-assisted suicides were enrolled in hospice care and in Washington state,  93% of its assisted suicides “were assisted by an EOLWA (Compassion and Choices) volunteers”. 

Compassion and Choices also supports two other “legal” options for assisted suicide in states that haven’t passed physician-assisted suicide laws. One is “voluntary stopping of eating and drinking (VSED)” and the other is “palliative sedation-Sometimes called terminal sedation”. Significantly, the recommendations include the admission that “VSED includes pain and symptom management” and “Palliative sedation must be medically managed by a healthcare provider”. Thus the need to influence and train hospice and palliative care providers.

No wonder Compassion and Choices lists as one of its accomplishments that it:

Pioneered the medical model of aid in dying that helps ensure that doctors can ethically practice aid in dying in an open, legitimate and accessible way, and integrates the option into patients’ end-of-life care. The culmination of that work was the publication of clinical criteria in the Journal of Palliative Medicine in December 2015. (Emphasis added)

The first line of this article ““Clinical Criteria for Physician Aid in Dying” (their preferred name for physician-assisted suicide) is:

“More than 20 years ago, even before voters in Oregon had enacted the first aid in dying (AID) statute in the United States, Timothy Quill and colleagues proposed clinical criteria AID.”  (Emphasis added)

Timothy Quill, MD was the 2012 president and recipient of the Visionary award  of the American Academy of Palliative and Hospice Medicine. Dr. Quill also was the respondent in the 1997 US Supreme Court case Vacco v Quill arguing for physician-assisted suicide as a constitutional right. He lost unanimously then.

Now, Compassion & Choices’ website has a video presentation based on this article  titled  “Understand the Clinical Practice of Aid in Dying”  for doctors and other clinicians. The presentation even offers continuing medical education credits.

This would not be possible if the AAPHM had not changed its position on assisted suicide from opposition to “studied neutrality”, a position that the American Medical Association itself is now considering.

WHERE THE MONEY AND POWER IS

Compassion and Choices now has its “Federal Policy Agenda / 2016 & Beyond”.

The priorities on its agenda include:

Establish federal payment for palliative care consultations provided by trained palliative care professionals who will advocate for and support the values and choices of the patient….”  (Emphasis added)

Also included are “Professional Education and Development” training programs for doctors and other providers “in discussing terminal prognoses and death” and  “Policies and Payment Systems” to change medical policies and payments to a “a value-based healthcare payment system” that will “(e)ncourage Congress to direct CMS (the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) and other federal agencies” to withhold   “appropriations or other funds”  for treatment that was “provided but (deemed) unwanted”.

This last provision reinforces the fear many healthcare providers already have that, if in doubt, it is safer not to treat a person rather than treat them in hope of a good result because of potential lawsuits or reimbursement problems.

Also a priority is “Public Education and Engagement”.  Compassion and Choices bemoans that one survey showed “22 percent of those aged 75 and older had neither written down nor talked to someone about their treatment preferences at the end of life.”

So naturally Compassion and Choices recommended strengthening the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ proposal to “reimburse doctors for communicating with patients about whether and how they would want to be kept alive if they become too sick to speak for themselves.”  This of course involves “living wills” and other advance directives that give people a list of some medical treatments or care to automatically refuse by a check mark. Unfortunately but tellingly, these directives include no explanation of the treatments themselves or their risks and benefits which is crucial for the informed consent or refusal required if the person was making the decision while fully conscious.

CONCLUSION

Compassion and Choices has been very involved in many legal cases about assisted suicide including the 1997 US Supreme Court’s Vacco v Quill decision finding no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide. Undeterred, the organization continues to push for legalization of assisted suicide by fighting state by state while hoping for a possible future US Supreme Court decision that, like Canada’s in 2015, would legalize medically assisted suicide throughout the country.

In the meantime, if Compassion and Choices federal policy agenda is successful, they stand to benefit from a potential windfall of government taxpayer funding to provide their currently  “free consultation, planning resources, referrals and guidance”

As an article by Ashton Ellis has astutely observed ,

“The effort by pro-euthanasia group Compassion & Choices to use Brittany Maynard’s story to push physician-assisted suicide is part of a larger strategy. When talking about end-of-life issues, a strategically crafted frame points to only one logical conclusion: I’d rather be dead.”

Physician-assisted Suicide Laws: Real Safeguards? No. Discrimination. Yes!

Many years ago before the first physician-assisted suicide law was passed in Oregon, I was asked to see a patient I will call “Eleanor” who was on the oncology (cancer) unit where I worked.

Eleanor was larger than life even when she became ill with cancer in her 50s. Spirited and feisty with a wicked sense of humor, Eleanor regaled us doctors and nurses with her tales about her event-filled life. But over some months when her cancer treatments failed to cure her, Eleanor’s mood darkened and she told me of her plans to commit suicide either with a “doctor” like Jack Kevorkian or by her own hand. She was insistent that she die before she became mentally diminished or physically dependent on others. I notified the doctor and spent time talking with her.

With treatment and especially by addressing her fears and the ramifications of a suicide decision, I was elated when Eleanor changed not only her mind but also her attitude. Once she decided against suicide, she embraced life fully and with gusto. She eventually died comfortably and naturally.

However, after Eleanor changed her mind about suicide and mentioned me, her friends tracked me down and threatened to get me fired because I was unjustly “interfering with her right to die”. Instead of being happy or relieved for Eleanor, these friends were instead outraged that we took the usual measures we would take with anyone to prevent a suicide.

I was shocked then but I am not now, especially after physician-assisted suicide was legalized in some states and one of its’ victims,  the late Brittany Maynard, became a celebrity.

HOW ASSISTED SUICIDE LAWS DISCRIMINATE IN TREATMENT FOR SUICIDAL PATIENTS

When a patient expresses thoughts of suicide, this is considered an emergency. As health care providers, we notify the doctors and an evaluation is done.

As the American Family Physician website states in Evaluation and Treatment of the Suicidal Patient:

“Important elements of the history that permit evaluation of the seriousness of suicidal ideation include the intent, plan, and means; the availability of social support; previous suicide attempts; and the presence of comorbid psychiatric illness or substance abuse. After intent has been established, inpatient and outpatient management should include ensuring patient safety and medical stabilization; activating support networks; and initiating therapy for psychiatric diseases. Care plans for patients with chronic suicidal ideation include these same steps, as well as referral for specialty care.” (Emphasis added)

However, physician-assisted suicide laws like Washington state’s “Death with Dignity Act” only  requires doctors to

 (e) Refer the patient for counseling if appropriate under RCW 70.245.060

and

If, in the opinion of the attending physician or the consulting physician, a patient may be suffering from a psychiatric or psychological disorder or depression causing impaired judgment, either physician shall refer the patient for counseling.” (Emphasis added)

Not surprisingly, very few people are referred for counseling since assisted suicide activists and some others consider such suicides “rational”.

HOW PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE LAWS DISCRIMINATE EVEN IN DEATH CERTIFICATES

While it can be painful to the family (as I personally know), when suicide is determined to be the cause of death, it must be reported as such on the person’s   death certificate.

However, the Washington State assisted suicide law actually forbids doctors from listing  suicide or assisted suicide as the cause of death: “(2) The attending physician may sign the patient’s death certificate which shall list the underlying terminal disease as the cause of death.

There are even detailed “Instructions for Physicians and Other Medical Certifiers for Death Certificates: Compliance with the Death with Dignity Act”:

“If you know the decedent used the Death with Dignity Act, you must comply with the strict requirements of the law when completing the death record:

  1. The underlying terminal disease must be listed as the cause of death.
  2. The manner of death must be marked as “Natural.”
  3. The cause of death section may not contain any language that indicates that the Death with Dignity Act was used, such as:
  4. Suicide
  5. Assisted suicide
  6. Physician-assisted suicide
  7. Death with Dignity
  8. I-1000
  9. Mercy killing
  10. Euthanasia
  11. Secobarbital or Seconal
  12. Pentobarbital or Nembutal

The Washington State Registrar will reject any death certificate that does not properly adhere to the requirements of the Death with Dignity Act.1 If a death certificate contains any reference to actions that might indicate use of the act, the Local Registrar and Funeral Director will be instructed, under RCW 70.58.030, to obtain a correction from the medical certifier before a permit to proceed with disposition will be issued.”(Emphasis added)

This flies in the face of the 2003 CDC’s Medical Examiners’ and Coroners’ Handbook on Death Registration and Fetal Death Reporting that states:

“The death certificate is the source for State and national mortality statistics (figures 1–3) and is used to determine which medical conditions receive research and development funding, to set public health goals, and to measure health status at local, State, national, and international levels.” (Emphasis added)

The Handbook also gives the distinctions between manners of deaths:

Natural—‘‘due solely or nearly totally to disease and/or the aging process.’’

Suicide—‘‘results from an injury or poisoning as a result of an intentional, self-inflicted act committed to do self-harm or cause the death of one’s self.’’

Why were the activists and lawyers who wrote this law not challenged when it was written to actually require doctors to lie on a legal document and add yet another layer of secrecy?

Again, as I wrote in my previous blog “Why Should Physician-Assisted Suicide Laws Grant Special Privileges?” , legislatures and the public need to know and challenge these outrageous provisions as well as being informed about the personal and societal dangers of assisted suicide itself. We must demand truth, transparency and accountability, especially when life and death are at stake.

Why Should Physician-Assisted Suicide Laws Grant Special Privileges?

A May 2016 Gallup poll titled Euthanasia Still Acceptable to Solid Majority in US”   reports that now 69% of those surveyed agree that “doctors should be allowed by law to end a patient’s life by some painless means” if the person “has a disease that cannot be cured” and “if the patient and his or her family request it”.  (Emphasis added)

There is also reported  growing support among doctors  for medically assisted suicide.

This is alarming but should not be surprising in view of the intense and usually one-sided portrayal  of assisted suicide as “courageous” and honorable while unassisted death is routinely portrayed as agonizing to both the family and the patient.

However, there are few healthcare providers who actually want to personally participate in ending a life even when they say they support legalizing assisted suicide. This is one reason why Compassion and Choices, the former Hemlock Society, has been involved in most of the assisted suicides in Oregon and Washington.

The reluctance of most doctors and nurses to participate in assisted suicide has come about despite the unique and special protections given to healthcare providers who participate in medically assisted suicide that can actually encourage healthcare providers to participate without fear of legal consequences.

Note two of these provisions in the Oregon law :

“The Health Services shall make rules to facilitate the collection of information regarding compliance with ORS 127.800 to 127.897. Except as otherwise required by law, the information collected shall not be a public record and may not be made available for inspection by the public.” (Only an “an annual statistical report of information” is made public.) (Emphasis added.)

And

No person shall be subject to civil or criminal liability or professional disciplinary action for participating in good faith compliance with ORS 127.800 to 127.897. ” (Emphasis added.)

There is also no requirement that the doctor or anyone else witness or even be present at the lethal overdose.

But why are the activists and  lawyers who write these laws not challenged when they purposely omit  the stringent documentation and oversight required for any  other medical intervention by relying on doctors’ self-reporting the process  while also granting these doctors virtual immunity from any legal, civil or professional liability  for coercion, complications, abuse etc.?

One answer is that this allows the media and even doctors like Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel (one of the architects of Obamacare) to declare:

“Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are increasingly being legalized, remain relatively rare, and primarily involve patients with cancer. Existing data do not indicate widespread abuse of these practices.”  (Emphasis added)

The second answer is that these provisions allow assisted suicide doctors  (who obviously have more in common with the infamous Dr. Jack Kevorkian than the iconic Marcus Welby, MD of the 1970s)  to privatize the death and thus prevent any real investigation, followup or even serious medical research as well as allowing the coverup of any problems.

Apparently, nothing can be allowed to interfere with the carefully manufactured image of a kindly doctor helping a patient in excruciating pain to have a quick painless demise.

No other area of medical practice-even lethal injection execution-is allowed such secrecy and immunity.

Legislatures and the public need to know and challenge these outrageous provisions as well as being informed about the personal and societal dangers of assisted suicide itself. We must demand truth, transparency and accountability, especially when life and death are at stake.