In June 2019, the American Medical Association (AMA) House of Delegates decisively approved reaffirming the AMA’s long-standing policy opposing physician-assisted suicide despite enormous pressure from assisted suicide supporters and groups like Compassion and Choices as well as some other professional associations to change its position to “neutrality”.
But a few weeks later, the American Nurses Association (ANA) dropped its long-standing policy opposing physician-assisted suicide. Instead its’ new “The Nurse’s Role When a Patient Requests Medical Aid in Dying (aka physician-assisted suicide)” insists that it is really about “high-quality, compassionate, holistic and patient-center care, including end-of-life care”.
As the new position states, “A nurse’s ethical response to a patient’s inquiry about medical aid in dying is not based on the intention to end life. Rather, it is a response to the patient’s quality-of-life self-assessment, whether based on loss of independence, inability to enjoy meaningful activities, loss of dignity, or unmanaged pain and suffering.” (Emphasis added)
This response includes even being present when the patient takes the lethal overdose: “If present during medical aid in dying, the nurse promotes patient dignity as well as provides for symptom relief, comfort, and emotional support to the patient and family.” (Emphasis added)
For nurses who object to assisted suicide, the position states that “Conscience-based refusals to participate exclude personal preference, prejudice, bias, convenience, or arbitrariness” and that “Nurses are obliged to provide for patient safety, to avoid patient abandonment, and to withdraw only when assured that nursing care is available to the patient” (Emphasis added)
In other words, nurses would have to abandon their vital role in preventing and treating suicide for some of their patients when the issue is assisted suicide. And a conscience-based refusal to participate depends on whether or not another nurse willing to participate is available.
Although the ANA insists that their position “is intended to reflect only the opinion of ANA as an organization regarding what it believes is an ideal and ethical response based on the Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements”, the effect is chilling for those of us who cannot or will not help our patients kill themselves even where legal.
Already, Compassion and Choices (the former Hemlock Society) is praising the ANA for “dropping opposition to ‘medical aid in dying’”, stating that “It’s no surprise that the largest national nursing association recognized the growing public demand for medical aid in dying and updated their policy to allow nurses to better support their patients at life’s end.” (Emphasis added)
But the ANA may eventually have to again update their position on assisted suicide since we are now seeing, as in a (thankfully failed) recent bill in New Mexico, further attempts to change the definition of terminal illness to expected death in the “forseeable future”, non-physicians such as advance practice nurses able to prescribe assisted suicide, inclusion of people with mental health disorders, approval by “telemedicine” and no state residency requirement.
Right now, less than ten percent of the nation’s nurses are members of the ANA or other professional organizations” and that number is declining. The ANA should reconsider its new position on assisted suicide for the good of all nurses and even society itself.
In the end, who will remain or want to enter a healthcare profession that allows helping some patients kill themselves? And how many of us would be just as trusting with a nurse who is as comfortable with assisting our suicide as he or she is with caring for us?
Marianne Linane RN, MS, MA, National Association of Pro-Life Nurses Executive Director
📞 (202) 556-1240
Nancy Valko, RN ALNC Spokesperson for the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses