Amid conflicting reports about whether or not the American Medical Association was going to consider a position of neutrality on physician assisted suicide, I was informed that the AMA’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs was collecting data, position statements, etc. for consideration of assisted suicide and other topics before the June AMA Annual meeting. The deadline for submissions was February 15.
The following is my submission titled “Neutrality on physician assisted suicide also hurts nurses”
I have been a registered nurse since 1969. After working in critical care, hospice, home health, oncology, dialysis and other specialties for 45 years, I am currently working as a legal nurse consultant and volunteer as well as spokesperson for the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses. Over the years, I have cared for many suicidal people as well as people who attempt suicide.
I have served on medical and nursing ethics committees, served on disability and nursing boards. I have written and spoken on medical ethics-especially end of life issues-since 1984.
The dangers of the legalization of physician-assisted suicide are especially acute for us nurses. Unlike doctors, we nurses cannot refuse to care for a patient in a situation like assisted suicide unless another willing nurse can be found which can be impossible. If we do refuse, that is considered abandonment and cause for discipline and even termination. And we are necessarily involved when the assisted suicide act occurs in home health, hospice or health care facility even though the doctor is not required to be there.
Marievalko Picture of Marie Valko 1979-2009
As a nurse and the mother of a suicide victim (see picture above), I am alarmed by reports that the AMA is considering a position of neutrality on physician-assisted suicide. I beg you to uphold the legal and ethical standard that medical professionals must not kill their patients or help them kill themselves. Suicide is a tragedy to be prevented if possible, not a civil right.
MY DAUGHTER KILLED HERSELF USING AN ASSISTED SUICIDE TECHNIQUE
In 2009, I lost a beautiful, physically well 30-year-old daughter, Marie, to suicide after a 16-year battle with substance abuse and other issues. Her suicide was like an atom bomb dropped on our family, friends and even her therapists.
Despite all of our efforts to save her, my Marie told me that she learned how to kill herself from visiting suicide/assisted suicide websites and reading Derek Humphry’s book Final Exit. The medical examiner called Marie’s suicide technique “textbook final exit” but her death was neither dignified nor peaceful.
Marie was not mere collateral damage in the controversy over physician-assisted suicide. She was a victim of the physician-assisted suicide movement, seduced by the rhetoric of a painless exit from what she believed was a hopeless life of suffering.
Adding to our family’s pain, at least two people close to Marie became suicidal not long after her suicide. Luckily, these two young people received help and were saved, but suicide contagion, better known as “copycat suicide”, is a well-documented phenomenon. Often media coverage or publicity around one death encourages other vulnerable people to commit suicide in the same way.
STUDY SHOWS LEGALIZING PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE IS ASSOCIATED WITH AN INCREASE RATE OF TOTAL SUICIDES
A 2015 article in the Southern Medical Journal titled “How Does Legalization of Physician-Assisted Suicide Affect Rates of Suicide?” came to these conclusions:
“Legalizing PAS has been associated with an increased rate of total suicides relative to other states and no decrease in nonassisted suicides. This suggests either that PAS does not inhibit (nor acts as an alternative to) nonassisted suicide, or that it acts in this way in some individuals but is associated with an increased inclination to suicide in other individuals.”
THE HEALTH AND ECONOMIC COSTS OF SUICIDE
My Marie was one of the almost 37,000 reported US suicides in 2009. In contrast, only about 800 assisted-suicide deaths have been reported in the past 16 years in Oregon, the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for Americans in 2012, with “More than 1 million people reported making a suicide attempt in the past year” and “More than 2 million adults reported thinking about suicide in the past year.” The CDC estimates that suicide “costs society approximately $34.6 billion a year in combined medical and work loss costs”, not to mention the emotional toll on families.
Obviously our real health-care crisis here is a staggering and increasing rate of suicides, not the lack of enough assisted suicides.
There was a media frenzy in October 2014 when Brittany Maynard, a young newlywed woman with a brain tumor, announced plans to commit physician-assisted suicide on November 1 and raise money to have physician-assisted suicide legalized in all US states. There was an immediate and unprecedented media frenzy surrounding Ms. Maynard’s tragic story that routinely portrayed her pending assisted suicide as “heroic” and even counting down the days to her suicide. Personally, I thought this looked like a crowd on the street shouting for a suicidal person on a window ledge to jump.
In the end, Brittany hesitated for a day before she went through with her pledge to take the lethal overdose.
Now, assisted suicide supporters even deny that physician-assisted suicide is suicide, insisting that media stories use euphemisms like “aid-in-dying” and “death with dignity” in cases like Ms. Maynard’s to make assisted suicide more palatable to the public. However, this defies common sense when the definition of suicide is the intentional taking of one’s own life.
PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE AND MEDICAL DISCRIMINATION
I have been a registered nurse for 47 years, working in intensive care, oncology, hospice and home health among other specialties. Personally and professionally, I have cared for many people who attempt or consider killing themselves.
Some of these people were old, chronically ill or had disabilities. Some were young and physically healthy. A few were terminally ill. I cared for all of them to the best of my ability without discrimination as to their condition, age, socioeconomic status, race or gender. I will do anything to help my patients — except kill them or help them kill themselves.
Suicide prevention and treatment works, and the standards must not be changed just because some people insist their desire for physician-assisted suicide is rational and even a civil right.