Six Things You Need to Know about Physician-Assisted Suicide

This article was originally published in The Public Discourse on December 19, 2017

Six Things You Need to Know about Physician-Assisted Suicide

Pull quote: Is the real healthcare crisis not enough physician assisted suicide laws? Or
is it the staggering and increasing number of people losing their battles
with mental illness and committing suicide?

It has been twenty years since Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law took
effect after a public referendum. Since then, four other states have
legalized physician-assisted suicide.

Polls seem to show strong public support for physician-assisted suicide. They ask questions like this one from a  2017 Gallup poll: “When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should or should
not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient
requests it?”

Unfortunately, most people have only a vague idea about what such laws
actually say and do. Here are six things you must know before you decide
whether to support or oppose physician-assisted suicide.

1. Pain or any other suffering is not a requirement for a person seeking
assisted suicide; “a disease that cannot be cured” can include manageable
conditions like diabetes as well as terminal illnesses like cancer.

None of the US laws are restricted to patients experiencing pain, which can
be addressed in ways that do not deliberately kill the patient. In 2016, for
example, almost half of patients using assisted suicide in Oregon cited their reason for seeking death as “Burden on family, friends/caregivers” while just 35 percent cited “Inadequate pain control or concern about it.”

2. Medical professionals participating in physician-assisted suicide are
immune from accountability and standards of due care.

“No person shall be subject to civil or criminal liability or professional
disciplinary action for participating in good faith compliance with”
Oregon’s law. Thus any licensed doctor (or other healthcare provider), with
or without experience and regardless of his or her medical specialty, can
write a lethal overdose prescription for a patient as long as he or she
claims to be in “good faith compliance.” As a legal standard, this test is
effectively meaningless, because it relies only on the physician’s word.

The physician is not required to be-and often is not-the patient’s primary
care doctor. Many physicians do not want to be involved in this process,
according to “Compassion & Choices,” an organization that promotes the legalization of physician-assisted suicide throughout the United States. When one doctor (or many) conclude that it would be irresponsible to give a lethal overdose to a patient, such
organizations encourage patients to find a doctor with lower standards.

No other medical intervention has such immunity protection from lawsuits or
criminal investigation. In addition, no other medical intervention is so
devoid of standards for the clinical expertise or education required of the
physician involved.

3. Physician-assisted suicide does not involve the stringent documentation
and oversight required for other medical interventions.

In all jurisdictions where physician-assisted suicide is allowed, to
prescribe a lethal overdose the doctor need only fill out the required state
forms that include a consultation with a second physician who agrees.
Neither doctor is required to have a professional relationship with the
patient before the physician-assisted suicide request.

Documentation of physician-assisted suicides relies on doctors’
self-reporting. There is no requirement that the actual taking of the lethal
overdose be witnessed by a medical professional or anyone else. This means
that there is no safeguard against medical complications, coercion by family
members, or other problems.

The Oregon law also specifies that, “Except as otherwise required by law, the information collected shall not be a public record and my not be made available for inspection by the public”, after which the original forms are destroyed.

Unfortunately, the immunity protections and secrecy surrounding even the minimal self-reporting in state-level assisted-suicide laws eliminate the possibility of future potential lawsuits or prosecutions for abuse. They keep alive the myth that there are strong safeguards in the law that eliminate problems like coercion or elder abuse.

4. The cause of death must be falsified.

States with physician-assisted suicide laws require that the cause of death is reported as death from an underlying condition rather than the lethal overdose, supposedly to ensure the patient’s privacy. But this clearly violates the standards set for coroners
and medical examiners by the Centers for Disease Control. Those standards require accuracy in determination of death because “The death certificate is the source for
State and national mortality 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.”

Falsified death certificates also quietly function to smooth over any problems with life insurance policies that have suicide clauses denying death benefits if the insured commits suicide within two years of taking out a policy. And since doctors are only required to “recommend that the patient notify next of kin” about the plan for assisted suicide, the rest of the patient’s family may never know the real cause of death. This means that they are also deprived of the chance to reassure their loved ones of their
support and willingness to help take care of them until their natural death.

5. Assisted suicide laws promote discrimination against suicidal people.

The usual standards for caring for a suicidal person include intensive management to prevent suicide attempts. These are changed in physician-assisted suicide: “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.” Only the evaluation of a patient’s competence, not the diagnosable mental disorders that afflict more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide, is required . It is shocking that only 3.8 percent of those seeking physician-assisted suicide in Oregon were referred for psychiatric
evaluation in 2016. Patients with dementia and with clinical depression that had existed for years before they contracted a physical illness have died under the Oregon law.

6. Suicide is contagious.

A 2015 article in the Southern Medical Journal titled “How Does Legalization of
Physician-Assisted Suicide Affect Rates of Suicide?” studied Oregon’s and Washington’s rates of non-assisted suicide after assisted suicide laws were passed. Despite claims that assisted suicide laws would reduce other suicides or only substitute for them, the authors reached the disturbing conclusion that “Rather, the introduction of PAS (physician assisted suicide) seemingly induces more self-inflicted deaths than it inhibits.”

This does not surprise me. In 2009 my thirty-year-old, physically healthy daughter Marie died by suicide. She killed herself using a technique she learned after visiting assisted suicide/suicide websites and reading Final Exit (1991) by Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society (an organization that merged with another group to form Compassion & Choices). The medical examiner called her suicide “textbook Final Exit.”

Adding to our family’s pain, at least two people close to Marie became suicidal not long after her suicide. Luckily, they were saved, but suicide contagion, better known as “copycat suicide,” is a well-documented phenomenon. Often media coverage or publicity around one death can encourage other vulnerable people to commit suicide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates have been
increasing since 2000 after decades of decline. Suicide is now the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, with more than 44,000 people dying by suicide every year. Suicide costs society over $56 billion a year in combined medical- and work-loss costs, not to mention the enormous toll suicide takes on family and friends. Oregon’s suicide rate is more than 40 percent higher than the national average.

Is the real healthcare crisis not enough physician-assisted suicide laws? Or is it the staggering and increasing number of people losing their battles with mental illness and committing suicide?

No matter what Compassion & Choices says, physician-assisted suicide is not a civil right or just one of an assortment of morally neutral end-of-life options. It’s time to stand up and fight to keep the medical profession from abandoning its most fundamental ethical principles.

Nancy Valko, RN, ALNC, is a longtime writer and speaker on medical ethics issues who recently retired from critical care nursing to devote more time to consulting and volunteer work. She is also a spokesperson for the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses.

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Minding Your Medications, Especially When You are Older

When I first started out as a nurse in the late 1960s, I saw several patients admitted to determine why they had “mental status changes”, such as confusion. One of my first duties on admission was to make a list of medications the patient was taking.

I was alarmed to find some of these patients, usually elderly, were taking a large number of medications and some were similar and/or had potential interactions with other medications. When I first brought this to the attention of a doctor, he was skeptical until he read one of the patients’ lists.

The result was that he reevaluated every medication and temporarily stopped all medications that were not crucial. When the patient rapidly improved and went home with a much reduced list of medications, he and I shared this with other doctors and many other such patients then rapidly improved.

However, according to a December 12, 2017 article from Kaiser Health News titled “An Overlooked Epidemic: Older Americans Taking Too Many Unneeded Drugs”, such problems with medications continue to exist in our fast-paced health care system and older people continue to be especially at risk.

As the article states:

At least 15 percent of seniors seeking care annually from doctors or hospitals have suffered a medication problem; in half of these cases, the problem is believed to be potentially preventable. Studies have linked polypharmacy (multiple medications) to unnecessary death. Older patients, who have greater difficulty metabolizing medicines, are more likely to suffer dizziness, confusion and falls. And the side effects of drugs are frequently misinterpreted as a new problem, triggering more prescriptions, a process known as a prescribing cascade.

The glide path to overuse can be gradual: A patient taking a drug to lower blood pressure develops swollen ankles, so a doctor prescribes a diuretic. The diuretic causes a potassium deficiency, resulting in a medicine to treat low potassium. But that triggers nausea, which is treated with another drug, which causes confusion, which in turn is treated with more medication.

For many patients, problems arise when they are discharged from the hospital on a host of new medications, layered on top of old ones.” (Emphasis added)

Some doctors are now trying to combat the problem through education  about “deprescribing” — systematically discontinuing medicines that are inappropriate, duplicative or unnecessary.

I saw this problem recently in my own family when one of my older but still vigorous relatives in remission from cancer suddenly started to deteriorate. At first, her daughter thought the cancer had come back but the tests were negative.

The mystery was solved when it was discovered that my relative’s ophthalmologist (eye doctor) changed her eye drops for glaucoma but, unfortunately, the new medication also contained some of the same drug she was using for her heart condition.  When the medications were adjusted, my relative was back to normal within a short time.


1. Keep an updated list of all medications you take-including supplements like vitamins and over the counter medications-with you or a family member. Make sure all of your doctors have this list.

2. Especially if you take several prescription medications, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor if you still need all your current medications. With pain medication, especially narcotics, ask about how long you should use them and if or when you should start using over the counter pain medicine instead.

3. Ask about all your medications’ intended purpose and side effects  so you can recognize a potential problem.

4. If possible, use one pharmacy so that all your medications will be listed in one place and possible interactions can potentially be picked up.

5. Feel free to ask the pharmacist questions about your medications, even after you have already filled and started the prescription. They are there to help and medication is their specialty. You can even ask them how to safely dispose of older or narcotic medications you no longer need. Personally, I use a pharmacy that is open 24 hours a day.

I hope these tips will be helpful to you and your loved ones!


Compassion and Choices Celebrates as the Massachusetts Medical Society Becomes the 10th State Medical Association to Succumb to the Physician-assisted Suicide Agenda

In 1980, the Hemlock Society (now known as Compassion and Choices) was formed to  work for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide by proposing state legislative bills, voter initiatives and public advocacy.

These efforts failed until finally in May 1994, the Oregon Medical Association changed its position opposing physician-assisted suicide to neutrality.

Six months later, Oregon voters approved the very first US physician-assisted suicide law 51% to 49%.

Not surprisingly, now the Oregon Medical Association “supports the position that ‘death with dignity’ (aka physician-assisted suicide) is part of the doctor-patient relationship”.

Obviously, the neutrality of the medical association was a big factor in getting the first physician-assisted suicide law passed in the U.S. as well as its eventual integration into Oregon’s health care system.

Now, Compassion and Choices, the now well-funded promoter of assisted suicide and other death “choices”, is celebrating that:

“The Massachusetts Medical Society is the 10th American Medical Association chapter that has dropped its opposition to medical aid in dying and adopted a neutral stance on the practice, including nine of them in the last two years. The others are the California Medical Association in 2015, Colorado Medical Society in 2016, Maryland State Medical Society in 2016, Medical Society of the District of Columbia in 2016, Maine Medical Association in 2017, Minnesota Medical Association in 2017, Nevada State Medical Association in 2017, Oregon Medical Association in 1997 and Vermont in 2017.” (Emphasis added)

And that:

“Massachusetts’ ‘neutral engagement’ position is even better than a simply neutral position,” said Rebecca Thoman, M.D., campaign manager for Doctors for Dignity for Compassion & Choices. “It means if Massachusetts enacts a medical aid-in-dying law, the medical society will offer education and guidance to physicians who want to incorporate medical aid in dying into their practices.” (Emphasis added)

Ironically, as the Boston Globe reported in January 2017,:

“The vote before the Massachusetts Medical Society was whether to approve a survey — just a survey — of members’ attitudes toward “medical aid in dying.” …

In the end, the policy-making body decisively endorsed the survey and approved $25,000 to fund it — a sign that the Massachusetts Medical Society may be reconsidering its historic rejection of what it has called “physician-assisted suicide.’’ It comes as this movement to give terminally ill patients an option to end their life at a time of their choosing is gaining traction, propelled in part by some physicians’ groups dropping their longstanding opposition. (Emphasis added)

The surveys were ultimately sent to 25,000 doctors but only 12 to 13 percent were returned. Of those returned, approximately 60 percent of respondents wanted the medical society to rescind its opposition to physician-assisted suicide, while 40 percent wanted to keep the policy.

The most fundamental medical ethic of not killing or helping patients kill themselves must not be reduced to a popularity contest.

If this radical change in medical ethics results in the Massachusetts legislature legalizing physician-assisted suicide or by yet another voter referendum, the Compassion and Choices agenda to legalize assisted suicide throughout the U.S. will continue to accelerate to the detriment of the health care system, ethical health care providers and all medically vulnerable people.

Killing with Love?

Two disturbing news items in the UK recently caught my eye. Both involved actions considered criminal in the past, but now reconsidered as acts of love. Unfortunately, we have had similar cases here in the US.


In a November 17, 2017 UK Telegraph article, a 59 year old chemist named Bipin Desai, admitted pouring morphine into his father’s fruit smoothie and then injecting the diabetic father with insulin. The judge directed the jury to find Mr. Desai not guilty of murder but rather of assisted suicide.

The judge told Mr. Desai that:

“Your acts of assistance were acts of pure compassion and mercy. Your father had a solid and firm wish to die. For him, being assisted to die would be fulfilling his wish of going to heaven to see his wife and being put out of his misery.”

Ironically, the father was not even terminally ill but rather “he had just had enough of life and there are no real authorities who deal with that situation.” (Emphasis added)

Mr. Desai was allowed to go free with a suspended nine month prison sentence for assisting his father’s suicide and told by the judge:

“You are free to now go with your family and start the process of rebuilding your life.”

And apparently still able to be an heir.


Omodele Meadows of the UK was given $12 million dollars for the “wrongful birth” of her now 6 year old son Adejuwon.

Four years before she became pregnant, Ms. Meadows had a test to see if she had the gene linked to hemophilia because a relative had a child with the condition. Ms. Meadow’s test mistakenly showed that she did not have the gene.

After her son was born and found to have both hemophilia and autism (a condition that has no prenatal test, at least for now), she sued the doctor who gave her the results. Ms Meadows claimed that if she knew she had the gene for hemophilia, she would have had her son prenatally tested and aborted him.

The judge wrote:

It cannot be easy for any mother to contend bluntly that her child should not have been born. ‘Her love for her son shone through from her written statements. ‘She had specifically sought to avoid bringing a child with hemophilia into the world, knowing the suffering that condition causes.” (Emphasis added)

The judge added that Ms. Meadows now loves her son dearly and had only brought the claim “to provide a better life for her son”.

Did anyone wonder what Baby Adejuwon will think if or when he finds out about the circumstances of his mother’s case?


Before the legalization of abortion and euthanasia, we had consensus that killing a person because he or she was ill or disabled was absolutely wrong and unjust.

Now we are urged to accept that killing can be a loving act and should not be criminalized. And, if a diagnostic mistake is made and an abortion avoided, parents who would have aborted should be compensated, even richly.

What does that tell people who are ill or who have disabilities as well as all of us who lovingly care for these people? What does this do to our laws, ideals and attitudes?

In our hearts, we all really know that caring for lives, not killing, is the right thing to do. When we insist on ignoring this truth, tragedies like these two cases will not only continue but also devolve into terrible social, medical and legal policies that will affect us all if we do not speak out now.