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.”
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.”
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)
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.