Most people seem to assume that medically assisted suicide is a simple matter of getting a doctor to prescribe a lethal overdose, taking a pill or two and then go to sleep and die. Many seem unaware that a second consulting doctor (or other healthcare provider in some states) must agree.
This view, abetted by polls, well-funded groups like Compassion and Choices as well as a mostly sympathetic mainstream media, is disastrously wrong.
A stunning February 2022 article in Medscape for healthcare providers titled “Medical Aid in Dying: Your Clinical Guide and Practice Points” exposes some very real problems with medically assisted suicide that are largely hidden from the general public.
But while citing a Gallup poll showing that 74% of the American public support legalizing “medical aid in dying” (their preferred term for medically assisted suicide) as well as 58% of doctors, the article admits that:
“Study data, however, have revealed a discrepancy between attitudes about legalization and willingness to practice. Only 15% to 22% of physicians in favor of legal access to medical aid in dying would be willing or likely to provide such assistance” (Emphasis added)
And citing Oregon, the first state to legalize assisted suicide, the article claims that:
“Pain management and hospice use have improved in Oregon since passage of the Death with Dignity Act” but also that “Opponents of medical aid in dying express concern that in Oregon, more than 70% of patients who elect medical aid in dying are elderly and have cancer–both being commonly associated with depression–but fewer than 5% are referred for psychiatric evaluation”. (Emphasis added)
Tellingly, the article recognizes the toll assisted suicide can take on the medical professionals involved:
“A Mental Note for the Healthcare Provider: Discussion of end-of-life options represents a profound event for both the patient and the healthcare provider. Do not neglect your own self-care while guiding your patient through the emotionality that can be brought on by end-of-life decision-making.” (Emphasis added)
THE MEDICALLY ASSISTED SUICIDE PROTOCOL IS COMPLICATED
It is recommended that the patient does not eat or drink for 6 hours before ingesting the lethal dose called D-DMAPh.
Anti-nausea medication and a gastric motility medication is to be taken 1 hour before ingesting the life-ending medication.
A large dose of Digoxin to slow the heart is taken 30 minutes later and then a compound of anxiolytic, opioid and tricyclic medications are to be swallowed in less than 90 seconds.
– adding a favorite liquor may counter the bitterness of the mixture
– a small amount of sorbet can be ingested to avoid potential post-ingestion esophageal burning or distress
-Prepare for the possibility that the medication may not work if not quickly and fully ingested; it is crucial that the patient who self-administers not fall asleep before consuming the full dose-Patients should not take the medicine when alone or in a public place
-kept carefully out of the reach of children and vulnerable adults
-and must be disposed of properly. (Emphasis added)
For special circumstances:
“It is legal in all jurisdictions for physicians, other HCPs, or family members to assist in medical aid in dying but not to administer medical aid-in-dying medications.[1-9] The law requires that the patient self-administer the medication through ingestible means, which may include:
• Drinking the medication mixture
• Ingesting through a nasogastric tube
• Ingesting the medication through a feeding tube, or
• Insertion through a rectal catheter
Patients are permitted to receive help in preparing or mixing the medication for self-administration, but the patient must take a voluntary, affirmative act (i.e., swallowing or pushing a syringe) and administer the medication him- or herself. Medical aid-in-dying laws do not allow physicians, family members, or anyone else, including the dying person, to administer medical aid-in-dying medication by intravenous (IV) injection, parenteral injection, or infusion.” (Emphasis added)
The article states that decision-making capacity is the basis of informed consent and that:
“Guidance begins with assessment of the patient’s decision-making capacity and understanding of palliative measures as alternatives to or concurrent with medical aid in dying. No matter the practice specialty, HCPs (health care providers) are trained on the art of assessing a patient’s medical decision-making capacity and their ability to understand the situation, appreciate the consequences, reason rationally, and express a choice.” (Emphasis added)
If there is a concern, the patient:
“must be referred for additional evaluation by a licensed psychiatrist, clinical psychologist, or clinical social worker. The request for aid-in-dying medication does not proceed unless the mental health professional affirms that the patient is free of mental illness, acute psychological distress, or demoralization.” (Emphasis added)
The article admits that complications such as regurgitation and seizures can occur but says they are infrequent.
Prolonged dying can also occur so the “families should make contingency plans for how to manage such circumstances” and “remain calm and engage with hospice or other support services as needed. Families should understand that to help avoid unnecessary deployment of police and emergency medical personnel, they should not call 911.” (Emphasis added)
The article also warns that:
“Those present at the death may witness the following changes, which frequently occur during the natural dying process: snoring; gurgling noises; changes in rate of breathing; and fluctuations in body temperature that may leave their skin cool, warm, moist, or pale. Physical movements or other external signs of distress are sometimes exhibited, but the internal peace of the person is not disturbed.” (Emphasis added)
Sadly, the article reports that 4% of patients in Oregon “chose not to inform their families of their decision” even though support groups “strongly recommend that at least 1 other person be present” but not the doctor.
LEGAL REQUIREMENTS DIFFER WIDELY BETWEEN STATES
The article illustrates how dramatic the differences are in state laws such as the eligible medical providers in New Mexico to include APRNs (advance practice registered nurses) and physician assistants and no consulting provider is required if the patient is in hospice.
“In Hawaii, a mental health evaluation is mandatory for all patients requesting medications under the law. In New Mexico, a mental health evaluation is also required if the patient has a recent history of a mental health condition or intellectual disability.” (Emphasis added)
Required waiting periods to make the second request varies from as little as none in Oregon and New Mexico if the patient is unlikely to survive the waiting period to at least 20 days in Hawaii.
The article also recommends that health care providers familiarize themselves with the assisted suicide group Compassion and Choice’s Doc2Doc helpline that “offers free, confidential telephone consultation with clinicians who are experienced in providing end-of-life medical care”.
Right now, 9 U.S, states (California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, Washington) and the District of Columbia have medically assisted suicide laws and 12 states (Massachusetts, Delaware, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Virginian, Arizona and Utah) have bills in their legislatures.
And there are more states seeking to expand their existing assisted suicide laws such as Vermont S 74 that threatens conscience rights by defining assisted suicide as a “healthcare service” and allows assisted suicide by telemedicine and Washington state HB 1141 that expands the prescriber to PAs (physician assistants), advanced registered nurse practitioners and allows the lethal dose to be sent by mail or courier.
Our neighbor Canada is a cautionary tale about the inability to limit medically assisted suicide.
In a June, 2021 article in the Psychiatric Times titled “First, Do No Harm: New Canadian Law Allows for Assisted Suicide for Patients with Psychiatric Disorders” , Dr. Mark Komrad chronicles the expansion of the 2016 MAID (medical aid in dying) law allowing medical euthanasia (the doctor directly administers a substance that causes death, such as an injection of a drug) and physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill to expand to those “with nonterminal chronic illnesses and permitted euthanasia for those whose psychological or physical suffering is deemed intolerable and untreatable”.
Now, those Canadians “whose only medical condition is a mental illness, and who otherwise meet all eligibility criteria, will not be eligible for MAID until March 17, 2023″. (Emphasis added).
As a nurse with over 50 years of personal and professional experience in hospice, critical care, oncology, etc., I am willing to do anything for sick people– except kill them or help them kill themselves. These people deserve better!
Medically assisted suicide is a dangerous proposition that has proven to be impossible to strictly limit. It also corrupts the essential element of trust we must have in the health care system and makes suicide more attractive to vulnerable people as a way to solve life’s problems.