Assisted Suicide and “Failure of Unconsciousness”

As a nurse, I have seen patients assumed to be unconscious while in a coma or sedated on a ventilator later tell me about some memories and feelings during that time. This is why I always cared for such patients as if they were awake.

Now in a stunning February, 2019 Association of Anaesthetists article titled “Legal and ethical implications of defining an optimum means of achieving unconsciousness in assisted dying”, a group of international doctors explore the difficulty in ensuring unconsciousness to death in lethal injection capital punishment and assisted suicide/euthanasia. (Note: Since the authors are international, some quoted terms here are spelled differently than here in the US)

Believing that “A decision by a society to sanction assisted dying in any form should logically go hand‐in‐hand with defining the acceptable method(s)”, the authors reviewed the methods commonly used and contrast these with an analysis of capital punishment in the US. They “expected that, since a common humane aim is to achieve unconsciousness at the point of death, which then occurs rapidly without pain or distress, there might be a single technique being used.”

They were wrong.

They found that with self-administered lethal overdoses “with death resulting slowly from asphyxia due to cardiorespiratory (heartbeat and breathing) depression”, helium self-suffocation and the Dutch lethal injection that resembles US capital punishment, “there appears to be a relatively high incidence of vomiting (up to 10%), prolongation of death (up to 7 days), and re‐awakening from coma (up to 4%), constituting failure of unconsciousness.” (Emphasis added)

The authors take no position on assisted suicide and state their intention to “dispassionately examine whether the methods used to induce unconsciousness at the point of death in assisted dying achieve their objective”. With many of the authors being anesthesiologists themselves, they used the most recent research into “accidental awareness” during anesthesia to try to find an “optimal means” that could better achieve unconsciousness.


It was difficult for the authors to find discussion of actual methods to cause death but the Dutch have published guidelines for both “passive participation” where the doctor prescribes a high-dose barbiturate and “active participation where the doctor administers a high dose of IV anesthetic and a neuromuscular (paralyzing) drug.

Notably, the authors found that a lethal injection is recommended by the Dutch when self-ingestion death fails to occur within 2 hours and that this is “an explicit recognition” that self-ingestion can fail.

The Dutch lethal injection resembles (except for the use of potassium to stop the heart) the US method of capital punishment so the authors looked at the US method of lethal injection capital punishment because it is “designed to be ‘humane’ and bears technical similarities” to lethal injection assisted suicide/euthanasia. The US lethal injection protocols also includes technical aspects such as drugs, dosage and monitoring of the patient.

However, as the authors note, “prisoners have been reported to be clearly awake and in distress during some executions”. Two death row prisoners even petitioned the US Supreme Court to consider a requirement for a physician to confirm unconsciousness before the lethal drugs are given. They argued that they “might be awake but paralysed at the point of death, making the method a ‘cruel or inhumane punishment’ which violated the US constitution’s Eighth Amendment”. (Emphasis added) The authors note that this “situation has clear parallels with the problem of ‘accidental awareness during general anesthesia’, where the patient awakens unnoticed and paralysed during surgery, which is known to be a potent cause of distress.” However, the US Supreme Court rejected this argument in 2008, “concluding that the anaesthetic doses used reliably achieved unconsciousness without any need to check that this was the case.” (All emphasis added)

As the authors state, “We now know that the Court was wrong.” (Emphasis added)


The US assisted suicide laws mandate secrecy in reporting requirements and the little yearly data available about complications is self-reported by the doctors who are not required to be with the person during the process or even afterwards to pronounce death.

However, the authors were able to use data from the Dutch protocols, and other similar methods used elsewhere and state that after taking the lethal overdose:

“patients usually lose consciousness within 5 min. However, death takes considerably longer. Although cardiopulmonary collapse occurs within 90 min in two‐thirds of cases, in a third of cases death can take up to 30 h(ours) 3133. Other complications include difficulty in swallowing the prescribed dose (in up to 9%) and vomiting thereafter (in up to 10%), both of which prevent suitable dosing, and re‐emergence from coma (in up to 2%). Each of these potentially constitutes a failure to achieve unconsciousness, with its own psychological consequences, and it would seem important explicitly to acknowledge this in suitable consent processes.” (Emphasis added

The authors also note:

“that the incidence of ‘failure of unconsciousness’ is approximately 190 times higher when it is intended that the patient is unconscious at the time of death 3133, as when it is intended they later awaken and recover after surgery (when accidental awareness is approximately 1:19,000)21, 22. (Emphasis added)


The authors discuss the limitations of just using EEGs (brain wave tests) and the isolated forearm technique (IFT) where the person can move their single, non-paralysed forearm to signal their awareness.

Instead the authors state:

“Recent lessons from anaesthesia lead us to conclude that, if we wish better to ensure unconsciousness at the point of death… then this can be achieved using: (1) continuous drug infusions at very high concentrations; (2) concomitant EEG‐based brain function monitoring, targeted to the very low, burst suppression or isoelectric values; and (3) clinical confirmation of unconsciousness by lack of response to command or to painful/arousing stimuli (and this last could include an IFT). Alternative methods that do not include these elements entail a higher, possibly unacceptable, risk of remaining conscious and so, by definition, are suboptimal.” (Emphasis added)

However, the authors acknowledge practical problems with this protocol such as the technical requirements requiring the involvement of trained practitioners like anesthetists.

And the “optimum method” for ensuring unconsciousness is so medicalized that:

“Society or individuals might prefer to retain a choice for alternative methods, even if these are suboptimal and carry a greater risk of consciousness at the point of death 54. If so, then legal frameworks and consent processes should explicitly acknowledge this choice. ” (Emphasis added)


The assisted suicide legalization movement led by Compassion and Choices portrays assisted suicide as an easy and dignified death, even one that can be a cause of celebration.

Polls about assisted suicide like the latest Gallup poll find 65% say “yes” when asked “When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living is 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?” even though assisted suicide laws don’t mention pain and state that the person must be terminally ill and expected to die within 6 months.

But how many people, especially legislators, would still say “yes” to legalizing assisted suicide after learning the truth in this article about the so-called “peaceful” assisted suicide?

And how many people would still pursue assisted suicide if they knew they might be conscious and in more distress during the process?

Unfortunately and right now, no assisted suicide law requires that kind of  explicit “informed consent”.

The obvious solution is to fight all assisted suicide laws and support all suicidal people.


While Opposition to Nursing Involvement in Assisted Suicide Grows, a Dire Warning from Canada

In March, I wrote a blog “Is the American Nurses Association Ready to Drop Opposition to Assisted Suicide?” about  the ANA draft position paper changing its stance from opposition to assisted suicide to “The Nurse’s Role When a Patient Requests Aid in Dying”. “Aid in Dying” is the ANA’s new term for assisted suicide. I included a link for public comments on this change that gave a deadline of April 8, 2019.

Although the ANA  claims that it ‘is the premier organization representing the interests of the nation’s 4 million registered nurses’, less than ten percent of the nation’s nurses are members of the ANA or other professional organizations” and that number is declining.

I belonged to the ANA decades ago but left when I saw the organization take radical positions without even informing us. Now, no nurse I know belongs-unless he or she is in politics, academia or administration.

Even though I regularly get medical and nursing news updates along with constant ads from the ANA, I never see ANA’s proposed new position changes on hot button issues like VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking to hasten death) and assisted suicide until alerted by people in my network. Unfortunately, although some of us wrote public comments opposing nursing involvement in VSED, the ANA approved the change in 2017

This time, the ANA’s draft position on assisted suicide led to an outpouring of criticisms and pleas not to approve the change.


The Catholic Medical Association issued a statement opposing the ANA’s draft position stating:

“These guidelines compromise not only the patient’s life, but also the conscience rights of nurses everywhere,” said Dr. John Schirger, President of the CMA.”

“A nurse or any health care provider should never abandon a patient or refuse comfort and care to a patient. But AID is not care and is the ultimate abandonment of a patient. Forcing the nurse to facilitate AID makes the nurse complicit in such abandonment,” said Dr. Marie Hilliard, Co-Chair of the CMA’s Ethics Committee.”

The National Association of Catholic Nurses issued their comments on the ANA’s draft such as:

“All the legal system can do is decriminalize AID so that nurses and physicians are not prosecuted for killing patients or helping them to kill themselves.  AID is the antithesis of social justice.”

“Nursing is a moral endeavor and much is at stake when nurses breach the moral obligation to first do no harm.  Harm is precisely what support of AID does.  It harms  the patient who is killed, the nurse who must make themselves indifferent to the patient’s suffering and convince themselves that killing is okay, the professional relationship that is built on trust that the nurse will not harm the patient, and society that will come to view nurses as potential accomplices in killing rather than as true healers and providers of authentic compassionate care.  As Florence Nightingale is quoted to have said, “The very first requirement in a hospital, is that it should do the sick no harm.”

The National Association of Pro-life Nurses (NAPN) responded in their comments that:

“Social and legislative shifts” do not make a previously immoral act moral. ”

“Aid in dying IS euthanasia. It is the deliberate taking of a life whether it is requested by the patient or not.”

Wesley Smith of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism asked “Now Will Nurses Only Prevent Some Suicides?” wrote:

“I hope the membership of the ANA will oppose their leaders’ attempt to accommodate the culture of death. If nurses become “non-judgmental” — e.g., indifferent — to some suicides, the consequent failure to request specialized preventative interventions could become the precipitating omission that sends some suicidal patients into the abyss.”

And over 1000 people signed an online petition opposing the ANA draft position by the April 8, 2019 deadline.


The Canadian Catholic Nurses joined the National Association of Catholic Nurse in opposing the ANA’s draft position and gave a chilling look at what may be our future if  legalized assisted suicide is not stopped:

“Our association formed in 2018 primarily in response to Canadian nurses’ moral distress regarding the nation-wide legalization of medically induced death. Professional associations and licensing bodies across Canada endorsed the legal changes, requiring conscientious objectors to participate in “Medical Assistance in Dying” by “effective referral” to facilitate access at the patient’s request. Faith-based health care facilities are pressured to participate. Nurse practitioners are trained and qualified to prescribe and administer lethal doses of medication to patients that they or others deem eligible for euthanasia.”

 Social justice demands that nurses advocate for the protection of life until natural death, not for increased access to induced death. The Canadian experience with assisted suicide and euthanasia provides evidence for your continued resistance to the practice.

Unlike Oregon, Canada has not experienced a growth in palliative care along with the rapid expansion of induced death. Instead, we experience ongoing demands for access to lethal injections for new categories of patients, including “mature minors;” those who write advanced directives; and those whose mental illness is the sole condition underlying their request. We urge the ANA to maintain its courageous opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia.” (All emphasis added)”

Legalized assisted suicide is more than a legal, medical or nursing problem. It is a corrupting influence on our society that will destroy the essential protections of truly ethical healthcare for us all.