What You Need to Know Now That the District of Columbia Has Become the Seventh Jurisdiction in US to Legalize Assisted Suicide

Despite emails and other efforts to encourage the US Congress to exercise its legal authority to stop the Washington D.C. assisted suicide law, the expected congressional action was not completed within the 30 legislative days required.

However, there may be hope on the horizon according to a  February 18, 2017 Washington Times article that said “Congress can still neutralize the Death with Dignity Act by cutting off its funding through the appropriations process.”

What went wrong with the process of nullifying the assisted suicide law in time?  No one seems to know.

But one thing we do know is that Compassion and Choices, the well-funded assisted suicide activist organization, will continue its relentless fight over and over again in every state without an assisted suicide law and in the courts to make assisted suicide legal throughout the US. But even that is not the final goal.

Ominously, we are now seeing assisted suicide leaders like influential lawyer Kathryn Tucker even criticizing the so-called “safeguards” in assisted suicide laws  as “burdens and restrictions”. She now argues that  assisted suicide should be “normalized within the practice of medicine”.

WHAT WE NEED TO KNOW AND DO NOW

We cannot just depend on lobbying our politicians and legislatures to fight assisted suicide only when such bills are introduced in states legislatures or as public initiative votes. We must constantly reinforce our message that every life is worthy of respect and care, not medical termination.

But we must also understand that the assisted suicide/euthanasia movement has had decades of experience in shaping and publicizing its lethal message through carefully crafted steps to convince the public that physician-assisted suicide must be legalized to prevent or end suffering.

As I wrote in my 2013 article “Then and Now: The Descent of Ethics”, the assisted suicide/euthanasia movement has been very busy in the last several decades. I included a short history of the movement that people should know:

The 1970s brought the invention of “living wills” and the Euthanasia Society of America changed its name to the Society for the Right to Die. The so-called “right to die” movement received a real boost when the parents of Karen Quinlan, a 21-year-old woman considered “vegetative” after a probable drug overdose, “won” the right to remove her ventilator with the support of many prominent Catholic theologians. Karen continued to live 10 more years with a feeding tube, much to the surprise and dismay of some ethicists. Shortly after the Quinlan case, California passed the first “living will” law.

Originally, “living wills” only covered refusal of life-sustaining treatment for imminently dying people. There was some suspicion about this allegedly innocuous document and, here in Missouri, “living will” legislation only passed when “right to die” advocates agreed to a provision exempting food and water from the kinds of treatment to be refused.

But, it wasn’t long before the parents of Missouri’s Nancy Cruzan, who was also said to be in a “vegetative” state, “won” the right to withdraw her feeding tube despite her not being terminally ill or even having a “living will.” The case was appealed to the US Supreme Court, which upheld Missouri law requiring “clear and convincing evidence” that Nancy Cruzan would want her feeding tube removed, but, in the end, a local judge allowed the feeding tube to be removed. Shortly after Nancy’s slow death from dehydration, Senators John Danforth and Patrick Moynihan proposed the Patient Self-Determination Act (never voted upon but became law under budget reconciliation), which required all institutions to offer all patients information on “living wills” and other advance directives. Since then, such directives evolved to include not only the so-called “vegetative” state and feeding tubes but virtually any other condition a person specifies as worse than death and any medical care considered life-sustaining when that person is deemed unable to communicate.

But this “choice” is becoming an illusion. In 1999, Texas became the first state to pass a medical futility law to allow doctors and/or medical committees to  override advance directives and patient or family decisions to continue life-sustaining treatment on the basis that doctors and/or medical committees know best when to stop treatment.

In the 1990s, Jack Kevorkian went public with his self-built “suicide machines”  and the “right to die” debate took yet another direction. By the end of the decade, Oregon became the first state to allow physician-assisted suicide. At first, the law was portrayed as necessary for terminally ill people to die with allegedly unrelievable pain. Within a short time, though, it was reported that “according to their physicians, the patients requested assistance with suicide because of concern about loss of autonomy and control of bodily functions, not because of concern about inadequate control of pain or financial loss.”

Other states eventually followed Oregon but efforts to pass assisted suicide laws often failed in other states so Compassion and Choices (the former Hemlock Society) promoted palliative/terminal sedation and VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) as a legal alternative to assisted suicide in states without such laws.

Compassion and Choices has found much success in working with sympathetic news outlets and pollsters to encourage the public and even medical professionals to support assisted suicide.

Even TV’s popular Dr. Phil McGraw hosted a 2012 segment featuring a Canadian woman who wanted her adult disabled children to die by lethal injection. Ironically, the mother, along with former Kevorkian lawyer Geoffrey Feiger, argued that removing their feeding tubes was an “inhumane” way to end the lives of the adult children. Tragically, when the studio audience was polled, 90% were in favor of lethal injections for the disabled adults. Disability organizations protested after the show, writing that “By conveying social acceptance and approval of active euthanasia of individuals with disabilities by their family members, the segment threatens their very lives”.

Exploiting the natural fear of suffering most people have has also led to a growing acceptance of the premise that it can even be noble to choose death instead of becoming a burden on family members or a drain on society. It is up to us to combat this attitude of despair by  not only educating ourselves and others about the facts and dangers of assisted suicide but also by offering hope and support to those of us most at risk.

My Submission to the AMA Opposing Neutrality on Physician-Assisted Suicide

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”

Dear AMA,

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

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.

SUICIDE CONTAGION

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.

BRITTANY MAYNARD

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.

Emergency re-post: Write to Your Legislators in Congress Now!

On January 21, I wrote the following post (see below) to encourage all assisted suicide opponents to contact their own state’s legislators with instructions on how to find your state’s legislators and how to contact them.

There are only 30 legislative days (not calendar days but rather official working days for Congress which are impossible to predict) to contact your own state’s legislators to support a house and senate resolution bill disapproving the D.C. assisted suicide law before it automatically takes effect. The bills are S.J.Res. 4 for the Senate and H.J.Res.27 for the House and both are titled “Nullify District of Columbia Assisted Suicide Law”. You can also find and contact your legislators at those links.

It does not matter if your state has already approved assisted suicide or not. This is a way to let your legislator know you oppose it and this can educate him or her on what a constituent actually wants.

If you can, tell your story about why you oppose legalizing assisted suicide. Speak from your heart. It could be as simple as “I am a senior citizen and I fear giving doctors the right to kill”. Shorter messages are actually more likely to be read.

Thank you.

Nancy Valko RN ALNC

Urgent: Will Congress Stop the Washington D.C. Assisted Suicide Law in Time? Write Now!

January 21, 2017 nancyvalko assisted suicide, Compassion & Choices, law, medical ethics,

Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser  quietly signed an assisted suicide bill into law on December 19, 2016 after a majority of the city council voted for it.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the Congress has exclusive legislative authority over the District of Columbia. Congress has just 30 legislative days to review a law of the District of Columbia once it is passed by the city government. Resolutions of disapproval must be passed by both houses and be signed by the president to block a D.C. law.

In a race against time, the first step  to block the assisted suicide law was taken January 12, 2017 by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) who introduced introducing a resolution in the Senate that opposes D.C.’s  “Death With Dignity Act”.

A companion resolution was introduced in the House by Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) also said that he would push to block the law.

COMPASSION AND CHOICES HAS ALREADY STARTED A LETTER WRITING CAMPAIGN TO LEGALIZE ASSISTED SUICIDE IN WASHINGTON, D.C.

In a message to assisted suicide supporters, Compassion and Choices claims that “more than 2400 supporters” have “sent more than 7,000 messages to members of Congress”.  The organization also emphasizes “the importance of including your personal testimony” as “often the most effective way to change the minds of lawmakers”.

HOW TO CONTACT YOUR CONGRESSMAN OR CONGRESSWOMAN TO OPPOSE  ASSISTED SUICIDE IN WASHINGTON, D.C.

The National Right to Life Committee has a website link   to “Nullify District of Columbia Assisted Suicide Law” to contact your Senators and a separate link to contact your House representative(s). Enter your zip code in the box provided and you will be taken to a list of your congresspersons and a form you fill out to send an email to those representatives or senators with your comments.

HOW TO WRITE COMMENTS

Keep your comments respectful  and address the points that most move you. If you have a personal story about why you are against assisted suicide, write it as clearly and concisely as possible.

PROBLEMS WITH THE ASSISTED SUICIDE BILL

While many legislators (as well as the public) are persuaded by the “safeguards” to support assisted suicide laws, the Washington D.C. bill has many of the same problems with “safeguards” that other assisted suicide bills have. (For example, see my blogs “The slippery Slope-Tactics in the Assisted Suicide Movement” and “Pain and ‘Choice’“.)

In the D.C. assisted suicide law, such problems include:

1.The extraordinary immunity protections against civil, criminal liability or professional  disciplinary actions for doctors who participate in “good faith compliance” with the law.

  1. Protection from life or annuity insurance problems due to suicide (“Neither may a qualified patient’s at of ingesting a covered medication have an effect upon a life, health, accident, insurance, or annuity policy”)
  2. Minimal reporting requirements and secrecy in public records (“The Department will generate and make available to the public an annual statistical record of information collected”) Emphasis added.
  3. Require mental health evaluation only for the purpose of determining if the person is mentally capable to make the decision to end his or her life. (“‘Counseling’ means one or more consultations as necessary between a state licensed psychiatrist or psychologist  and a patient for the purpose of determining that the patient is capable and not suffering from a psychiatric or psychological disorder or depression causing impaired judgment.”)

CONCLUSION

There are many reasons to oppose legalizing assisted suicide including risk for elder abuse, discrimination against people with disabilities and/or terminal or chronic conditions, the destruction of the most basic rule of medical ethics to not kill patients or help them kill themselves, suicide contagion, etc.

Assisted suicide, legalized and approved by society, is a manifestation of despair and abandonment-not empowerment. We cannot afford to be bystanders while others like Compassion and Choices continue to demand that we all accept legalized assisted suicide as a constitutional and civil right.

 

 

Urgent: Will Congress Stop the Washington D.C. Assisted Suicide Law in Time? Write Now!

Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser  quietly signed an assisted suicide bill into law on December 19, 2016 after a majority of the city council voted for it.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the Congress has exclusive legislative authority over the District of Columbia. Congress has just 30 legislative days to review a law of the District of Columbia once it is passed by the city government. Resolutions of disapproval must be passed by both houses and be signed by the president to block a D.C. law.

In a race against time, the first step  to block the assisted suicide law was taken January 12, 2017 by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) who introduced introducing a resolution in the Senate that opposes D.C.’s  “Death With Dignity Act”.

A companion resolution was introduced in the House by Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) also said that he would push to block the law.

COMPASSION AND CHOICES HAS ALREADY STARTED A LETTER WRITING CAMPAIGN TO LEGALIZE ASSISTED SUICIDE IN WASHINGTON, D.C.

In a message to assisted suicide supporters, Compassion and Choices claims that “more than 2400 supporters” have “sent more than 7,000 messages to members of Congress”.  The organization also emphasizes “the importance of including your personal testimony” as “often the most effective way to change the minds of lawmakers”.

HOW TO CONTACT YOUR CONGRESSMAN OR CONGRESSWOMAN TO OPPOSE  ASSISTED SUICIDE IN WASHINGTON, D.C.

The National Right to Life Committee has a website link   to “Nullify District of Columbia Assisted Suicide Law” to contact your Senators and a separate link to contact your House representative(s). Enter your zip code in the box provided and you will be taken to a list of your congresspersons and a form you fill out to send an email to those representatives or senators with your comments.

HOW TO WRITE COMMENTS

Keep your comments respectful  and address the points that most move you. If you have a personal story about why you are against assisted suicide, write it as clearly and concisely as possible.

PROBLEMS WITH THE ASSISTED SUICIDE BILL

While many legislators (as well as the public) are persuaded by the “safeguards” to support assisted suicide laws, the Washington D.C. bill has many of the same problems with “safeguards” that other assisted suicide bills have. (For example, see my blogs “The slippery Slope-Tactics in the Assisted Suicide Movement” and “Pain and ‘Choice’“.)

In the D.C. assisted suicide law, such problems include:

1.The extraordinary immunity protections against civil, criminal liability or professional  disciplinary actions for doctors who participate in “good faith compliance” with the law.

2. Protection from life or annuity insurance problems due to suicide (“Neither may a qualified patient’s at of ingesting a covered medication have an effect upon a life, health, accident, insurance, or annuity policy”)

3. Minimal reporting requirements and secrecy in public records (“The Department will generate and make available to the public an annual statistical record of information collected”) Emphasis added.

4. Require mental health evaluation only for the purpose of determining if the person is mentally capable to make the decision to end his or her life. (“‘Counseling’ means one or more consultations as necessary between a state licensed psychiatrist or psychologist  and a patient for the purpose of determining that the patient is capable and not suffering from a psychiatric or psychological disorder or depression causing impaired judgment.”)

CONCLUSION

There are many reasons to oppose legalizing assisted suicide including risk for elder abuse, discrimination against people with disabilities and/or terminal or chronic conditions, the destruction of the most basic rule of medical ethics to not kill patients or help them kill themselves, suicide contagion, etc.

Assisted suicide, legalized and approved by society, is a manifestation of despair and abandonment-not empowerment. We cannot afford to be bystanders while others like Compassion and Choices continue to demand that we all accept legalized assisted suicide as a constitutional and civil right.

The Slippery Slope-Tactics in the Assisted Suicide Movement

I first saw this tactic  in the mid-1980s when Missouri was considering a “living will” law to allow a person to refuse “death prolonging procedures” if a person became terminally ill and unable to speak for himself or herself.  Some of us warned about a broader agenda, citing court cases involving feeding tubes and seriously brain-injured but non-terminally ill patients like Paul Brophy and Claire Conroy in New Jersey and Massachusetts . In  response, “right to die” activists (as they were known then) added the ”safeguard” of not allowing the withholding of food and water to the Missouri law  and the bill was passed.

Not surprisingly, Missouri soon faced the Nancy Cruzan case  involving the withdrawal of a feeding tube from a non-terminally ill young woman in a so-called “persistent vegetative state”.  Soon after that,  a Missouri Designated Health Care Decision Maker Act was passed that would allow a person to designate someone to make health care decisions (or a relative if there is no document) including withholding or withdrawing of feeding tubes when the person was incapacitated whether or not they were terminally ill or even in a so-called “vegetative state”.

Now, over 30 years later, we have legalized physician-assisted suicide in several states and the District of Columbia and the former “right to die” groups are now known as Compassion and Choices.

TODAY’S SLIPPERY SLOPE TACTICS

In a December 2016 commentary article titled “End of Life Liberty in DC” for a publication supported by the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, lawyer and long-time assisted suicide activist Kathryn L. Tucker surprisingly criticizes the new assisted suicide law quietly signed into law by the mayor of Washington, DC. this month.

While most people might believe that passage of yet another assisted suicide law would be cause for celebration for assisted suicide activists, Ms. Tucker is unhappy with the so-called “safeguards” in the DC law-just as “right to die” activists were with Missouri’s “living will” law.

Ms. Tucker now complains about the “many burdens and restrictions imposed” by these “safeguards” which, ironically, are added by assisted suicide activists themselves when they  “routinely face arguments of insufficient ‘safeguards’”.  Ms. Tucker lists some of these so-called “burdens and restrictions”:

  • Patients electing AID (aid in dying, the activists preferred term for physician-assisted suicide) must make at least three requests, two oral and one written.
  • The requests must be witnessed.
  • A second opinion confirming diagnosis and prognosis is required.
  • A mental health specialist must be consulted if the attending or consulting physician has concerns regarding the patient’s ability to make an informed decision.
  • A minimum fifteen-day waiting period must elapse between the two oral requests.
  • Physicians must collect and report a vast amount of demographic data on who chooses AID and why.

Ms. Tucker claims these so-called burdens and restrictions “impose heavy governmental intrusion into the practice of medicine, which is concerning because it creates barriers to patient access and to physician participation.” (Emphasis added)

Instead, Ms. Tucker proposes another, more expansive statute without the usual so-called “safeguards” that would provide:

a clear safe harbor (i.e. immunity) for physicians to practice aid in dying in conformity with standard of care. This reflected a positive step in the direction of normalizing AID within the practice of medicine. Medicine is not routinely governed by statute but, rather, by the type of care that a competent health care professional would render in similar circumstances —referred to as standard of care or best practice. (Emphasis added)

In other words, Ms. Tucker is proposing a policy that makes assisted suicide simply normal medical care with special protections against criminal, civil or disciplinary actions for doctors who participate even though such immunity is not given for other medical practices.

CONCLUSION

Ms. Tucker and other are deadly serious about this. When Vermont passed its assisted suicide law in 2013, the law contained a “sunset” provision that would end “nearly all regulation” after the first three years. Fortunately, this was repealed in 2015.

However, assisted suicide activists will not give up on this as Compassion and Choices makes clear:

We firmly believe — and experience demonstrates — that working within healthcare systems to normalize medical aid in dying will ensure fewer people suffer at the end of their life. (Emphasis added)

As Ms. Tucker demonstrates, assisted suicide advocates will promise anything to get assisted suicide laws passed but it appears that they will never be satisfied until assisted suicide becomes a private and unfettered practice using well-funded groups like Compassion and Choices as the potentially taxpayer-funded “experts” in charge of policies, referrals, training and education.

Pain and “Choice”

It was 1969 and I was fresh out of nursing school when I was assigned to a patient I will call “Jenny” who was thirty two years old and imminently dying of cancer. She was curled up in her bed, sobbing in pain and even moaned “just kill me.” The small dose of Demerol I injected into her almost non-existent buttocks every four hours “as needed” was not helping. I reassured Jenny that I was immediately calling the doctor and we would get her more comfortable.

However, I was shocked when the doctor said no to increasing or changing her medication. He said that he didn’t want her to get addicted! I told him exactly what Jenny said and also that she was obviously very close to death so addiction would not be a problem. The doctor repeated his no and hung up on me.

I went to my head nurse and told her what happened but she told me I had to follow the doctor’s order. Eventually, I went up the chain of command to the assistant director of nursing and finally the Chief of the Medical Staff. The verdict came down and I was threatened with immediate termination if I gave the next dose of Demerol even a few minutes early.

I refused to abandon Jenny so for the next two days before she died, I spent my time after my shift sitting with her for hours until she fell asleep. I gave her whatever food or drink she wanted. I stroked her back, held her hand and told stories and jokes. I asked her about her life. I did everything I could think of to distract her from her pain and make her feel better. It seemed to help, although not enough for me. I cried for Jenny all the way home.

And I was angry. I resolved that I would never watch a patient needlessly suffer like that again.

So I educated myself by reading everything I could about pain medicine and side effects. I also pestered doctors who were great at pain control to teach me about the management, precautions and rationale of effective pain management. I used that knowledge to advocate and help manage my patients’ pain as well as educating others.

I was delighted to see pain management become a major priority in healthcare and even called “the fifth vital sign” to be evaluated on every patient. I saw new developments like nerve blocks, new drugs and regimens to control pain and other techniques evolve as well as other measures to control symptoms like nausea, breathlessness and anxiety. Now we also have nutritional, psychological and other support for people with terminal illnesses and their families.

Best of all was that I never again saw another patient suffer like Jenny despite my working in areas such as ICU, oncology (cancer) and hospice.

TWENTY-FOUR YEARS LATER

When my oldest daughter was 14, she attended a public high school where the science teacher unexpectedly started praising the infamous Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his public campaign for legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia.  Kevorkian’s first reported victim was Janet Adkins, a 54 year old woman with Alzheimer’s in no reported physical pain who was hooked up to a  “death machine” in the back of a rusty van. Mrs. Adkins was just the first of as many as 130 Kevorkian victims, many if not most of whom were later found to have no terminal illness. Kevorkian escaped prosecution-even after he harvested a victim’s organs and offered them for transplant-until the TV show 60 Minutes aired Kevorkian’s videotape showing him giving a lethal injection to a man with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Shockingly, Kevorkian served only 8 years in prison before he was paroled and eventually became a media celebrity peddling assisted suicide and euthanasia.

My daughter, who never before showed any interest in my speaking and writing on the topic of assisted suicide, now stood up and peppered her teacher with facts about Kevorkian. The teacher asked her where she learned her information and she answered “From my mom who is a cancer nurse”.

Sarcastically, he responded “So your mother wants to watch people suffer?” My daughter responded “No, my mother just refuses to kill her patients!” End of discussion.

CONCLUSION

But not the end of the story. Tragically, we now have legalized assisted suicide in several states and serious efforts  to expand it to include people without physical pain but with conditions like Alzheimer’s, mental illness or other psychological distress as well as even children.

As Wesley Smith recently and astutely observed :

 Moreover, the statistics from Oregon and elsewhere show that very few people commit assisted suicide due to physical suffering. Rather, the issues are predominately existential, such as fears of being a burden or losing dignity

The public is being duped by groups like Compassion and Choices that campaign for legalized assisted suicide on the alleged basis of strict criteria for mentally competent, terminally ill adults in unbearable physical pain to freely choose physician-assisted suicide with (unenforceable) “safeguards”.

The emerging situation throughout the world is more like Kevorkian’s dream of unfettered and universal access to medical termination of the lives of “expendable” people. How much easier is that when people with expensive mental health problems, serious illnesses or disabilities can be encouraged to “choose” to be killed?

A Doctor’s New Euphoria

A Dec.4, 2016 Wall Street Journal article titled “Diagnosing Your Doc’s New Euphoria-Suddenly there’s hope for dismantling ObamaCare—and restoring sanity for doctors and patients” by Dr. Marc Siegel recounts the disturbing health insurance experiences of two of his patients in office visits.

He writes that:

Such encounters happen much more often now because ObamaCare has added low-quality heavily subsidized insurance that claims to be comprehensive and inflates patient expectations. This has bled into the entire health-care system, where more and more patients come to doctors expecting far more than we can possibly deliver regardless of their insurance….

Government regulations cause patients to buy expensive insurance policies. One example is ObamaCare’s requirement that everyone on the exchanges, Medicaid patients and businesses with fewer than 50 employees that provide coverage all be covered for maternity care and other benefits whether or not they need them.

He concludes:

 If much of ObamaCare is repealed, there will be room for more choice, competition and cost awareness. We can see a return of catastrophic health insurance with lower tax-deductible premiums, high deductibles and more payment up front, with government-run clinics for those who lack insurance.

I noticed my own doctor’s good mood the other day at my yearly wellness visit and I was not surprised. With the likely repeal or reform of Obamacare with its burdensome government regulation and compliance mandates, the current high burnout rate of physicians and other health care workers may decrease.

But there are other problems with Obamacare as it is structured today.

I have long been concerned about the direction of healthcare and in 2003, I was privileged to serve on a Catholic Medical Association task force on healthcare reform. Many great ideas, such as health savings accounts, measures to help the uninsured poor, and better conscience rights protections, were developed and published in a 2004 report entitled “Health Care in America: A Catholic Proposal for Renewal”. The result was some interest but little action as the Iraq War heated up.

In 2009, I wrote an article titled “A Nurse’s View of Ethics and Health Care Legislation”   about the proposed new Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). I read much of HR 3200, the 1000+-page proposed health care reform bill proposed before passage of the final Affordable Care Act that Rep. Nancy Pelosi famously said that Congress had “to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it”.   Here is some of what I wrote then with emphasis added:

I am also concerned about a massive governmental overhaul of our health care at an exorbitant financial as well as moral cost.

Much of the bill’s language is murky legalese that is hard to understand. Much of the language is vague enough to allow all sorts of interpretations — and consequences….

Government officials who advocate the proposed healthcare reform legislation are furiously trying to allay the fears of the increasing number of citizens who oppose the bill — but we have only to look at the statements and philosophy of the people supporting this bill to recognize potential dangers. Here are some examples:

Compassion and Choices (the newest name for the pro-euthanasia Hemlock Society) boasted that it “has worked tirelessly with supportive members of congress to include in proposed reform legislation a provision requiring Medicare to cover patient consultation with their doctors about end-of-life choice (section 1233 of House Bill 3200).”

— On abortion, President Barack Obama not only said “I remain committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose” on the January 22, 2009 anniversary of Roe v. Wade, but he also moved to rescind the recently strengthened federal conscience-rights protections for doctors and nurses who object to participating in abortion.

— On rationing: Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, President Obama’s health care advisor, wrote in the January 2009 issue of the British medical journal Lancet about using a “complete lives system” to allocate “scarce medical interventions”. He wrote that “When implemented, the complete lives system produces a priority curve on which individuals aged between roughly 15 and 40 years get the most substantial chance, whereas the youngest and oldest people get chances that are attenuated.

I hoped that I would be proven wrong about Obamacare but today’s problems with it speak for themselves.

Hopefully, our leaders will now come up with common sense and ethical changes that will meet the needs of the public and help healthcare providers provide the best care possible.

How Secrecy and Immunity Destroy “Safeguards” in Assisted Suicide Laws

Finally this November, a mainstream media source, the Des Moines Register, investigated some of the problems with legalized physician-assisted suicide in other states such as complications during the process, prolonged deaths,  non-existent or incomplete data in assisted suicide and even the “disputed meaning of ‘self-administer’” of the lethal overdose. This is crucial since Iowa is considering an assisted suicide bill in the legislature.

However, the Register’s reporting ignored.one of the most dangerous legal problems in assisted suicide laws: the criminal, civil and professional immunity given to doctors and others involved as long as they claim they acted in “good faith”. In addition, the secrecy and often yearly destruction of even the minimal information self-reported by the doctors as well as  falsified death certificates listing such deaths as natural effectively destroys any pretense of an enforceable law.

This has made enforcement of so-called “safeguards” virtually impossible in states with legalized assisted suicide and affects even a state like my home state of Missouri that has a  law with penalties to prohibit assisted suicide.

THE MISSOURI EXPERIENCE

Missouri’s law against assisted suicide states:

A person commits the crime of voluntary manslaughter if he knowingly assists another in the commission of self-murder.
Mo. Rev. Stat. § 565.023.1

Yet despite years of failure, the pro-assisted suicide forces are again trying this year to get the standard assisted suicide bill passed in the Missouri legislature.

However, enforcement of the current Missouri law has been problematic. In the only case involving a health care professional, just a five years probation plea agreement was reached before a trial despite a nurse admitting she killed the patient, not assisting a suicide.

In 2001, Daillyn Pavia, RN  faced murder charges after she admitted giving a lethal dose of morphine to a new patient who had just had a stroke and was taken off life support.  According to police, Pavia admitted to co-workers that she had “without authorization and within a half-an-hour of taking charge of Julia Dawson as her patient … intentionally (given) Ms. Dawson 15 times the maximum dosage of morphine that had been prescribed” as well as Propofol, a strong sedative, that was not prescribed. The victim’s son defended the nurse’s action, saying it was done out of compassion and should not be prosecuted.

In 2003, 2 years later, nurse Pavia pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 5 years probation.  Nurse Pavia did not show up at a hearing before the Missouri State Board of Nursing which noted that Pavia was placed “on five years of supervised probation with the special condition that she surrender her nursing license.”

(Ironically, this decision followed on the heels of the decision not to prosecute Dr. Lloyd Thompson, then head of the Vermont Medical Society, for intentionally giving a paralyzing, “life ending drug” to an elderly woman with terminal cancer whose breathing machine had been removed. The family opposed prosecuting the doctor. Instead Thompson was reprimanded by the Vermont Medical Practice Board that required a monitoring and review of his care of all terminally ill patients.  10 years later, Vermont became the third state to legalize physician-assisted suicide.)

I could find only two other cases of people being charged with assisting a suicide in Missouri. One occurred in 1996 when Velma Howard, a woman with ALS died of suffocation in a motel with family members who admitted giving her sleeping medication, alcohol and a plastic bag. The prosecuting attorney later dropped charges against the family members.

The Jacob Runge assisted suicide case in 2010  resulted in a jury acquitting a young man who provided a gun to his emotionally disturbed friend in a self-described mutual suicide pact but said he could not go through with killing himself.

FALLOUT AND CONSEQUENCES

The fallout from these cases, like many others around the country, show that if someone-even a doctor or nurse-claims that they acted out of “mercy” it is unlikely that a person will face more than a slap on the wrist for ending or helping to end an ill or troubled person’s life.

In addition for those of us who are ethical and conscientious nurses, we feel the chilling effect discouraging us from even reporting other health care providers like nurse Pavia in such cases since we may face repercussions ourselves, including firing. There are apparently no real whistleblower protections for nurses (and thus the public) in such cases, especially since these cases routinely garner much media and public sympathy for the perpetrators and routinely result in minimal if any penalties. Conscience rights may not be enough to protect our patients and ourselves.

As a 2014 Medscape (password protected) article titled “Should Nurses Blow the Whistle or Just Keep Quiet?   by a nurse/lawyer author explains with regard to patient safety violations (which, of course, should include reporting the killing of a patient) :

Am I recommending that nurses adopt the “see nothing, hear nothing, speak nothing” attitude? No. I am saying that under current law, it is safer for a nurse not to report than to report. That surprises me, and it may be right- or wrong-minded, but it’s the way it is. (Emphasis added.)

This is exactly what pro-assisted suicide groups like Compassion and Choices could have hoped for when they fashioned the immunity protections and the secrecy of even the minimal self-reporting standards in their assisted suicide laws. Eliminating the possibility of future potential lawsuits or prosecutions is what keeps their myth of “no problems, no abuses” alive.

Unfortunately, that is also what puts all of us and our loved ones at risk, especially when we are at our most vulnerable. With legalized assisted suicide laws now quickly expanding to other states, we must step up our efforts to educate the public and fight against the well-funded and relentless Compassion and Choices machine.

And there is one significant effort that any of us can do.  Consider asking your own doctor or health care provider where he or she stands on assisted suicide and feel free to state your position. If your doctor is in favor of assisted suicide, you might want to consider asking for a referral to another doctor who refuses to provide assisted suicide. The life you save may be your own.

Oh, Colorado!

Of course, the big news from the national voting last week was the stunning election of Donald Trump as president. But  barely mentioned by the media except for its passage was  Colorado’s Proposition 106 “End of Life Options Act initiative which won by a 65% to 35% popular vote. Now five states have formally legalized physician assisted suicide. Montana had a court ruling that state physician-assisted suicide is not “against public policy” but no law legalizing assisted suicide has been passed.

I remember going to Colorado about 20 years ago to speak against an assisted suicide bill in the state legislature. Enthusiasm was high and the assisted suicide bill was subsequently voted down in the legislature. But, as in other states including my own Missouri, the assisted suicide proponents never stopped pushing their agenda over and over again.

With their efforts often stymied in state legislatures after robust debate and testimony, well-funded groups like Compassion and Choices turn to the promotion of state initiatives. Colorado now joins Oregon and Washington State in legalizing assisted suicide by popular vote.

However, with groups like Compassion and Choices trying to normalize assisted suicide as just another valid medical decision, medical groups increasingly intimidated into neutrality and an almost entirely sympathetic mainstream media holding up Brittany Maynard as the ultimate poster child, the average person is easily persuaded to not look too closely  at the reality of assisted suicide.

For example, here is just the title of the Colorado ballot measure. There is also a much longer ballot summary and a link to the full proposed law.

“Shall there be a change to the Colorado revised statutes to permit any mentally capable adult Colorado resident who has a medical prognosis of death by terminal illness within six months to receive a prescription from a willing licensed physician for medication that can be self-administered to bring about death; and in connection therewith, requiring two licensed physicians to confirm the medical prognosis, that the terminally-ill patient has received information about other care and treatment options, and that the patient is making a voluntary and informed decision in requesting the medication; requiring evaluation by a licensed mental health professional if either physician believes the patient may not be mentally capable; granting immunity from civil and criminal liability and professional discipline to any person who in good faith assists in providing access to or is present when a patient self-administers the medication; and establishing criminal penalties for persons who knowingly violate statutes relating to the request for the medication?”

But what might have happened if this alternative language was used?

Should Colorado change the Colorado revised statues to permit a licensed doctor of any specialty in conjunction with a similar doctor to write a prescription for a lethal overdose to cause death for any adult resident that the doctors expect to die within 6 months; require mental health evaluation only for the purpose of determining if the person is mentally capable to make the decision to end his or her life; grant immunity for the doctors and others from civil or criminal penalty as long as they claim “good faith” intentions; require that the death certificate falsely state the cause of death as a natural medical condition instead of the lethal overdose; prohibit life insurance policies from being affected by a request for a legal lethal overdose and prohibit  public information about such lethal overdoses except a yearly statistical report as reported by the doctors involved? (Emphasis added)

Of course, we will never know.

But when we allow medical/legal protections and standards to be suspended for some suicidal people considered expendable based on an estimated prognosis and personal fear of even potential pain and/or dependence,  we will inevitably see the pool of potential victims of medical termination expand and lethal injections accepted, as is already  happening in Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland.

Just as bad, we will also be creating a class of medical serial terminators immune from any real oversight and accountability while penalizing ethical health care providers who refuse to participate or refer.

Should Ethics Committees be Death Panels?

I volunteered to serve on a newly started hospital ethics committees in the 1990s. While I wanted to help analyze difficult cases and serve as a resource for hospital personnel with ethical concerns, I became increasingly alarmed when I saw cost containment and judgments based on “quality of life” brought up as decisive factors by others on the committee.

I understood more when I researched the beginnings of ethics committees.

BACKGROUND

After numerous failed attempts to legalize euthanasia, the Euthanasia Society of America invented the “living will” in 1967 as a first step in gaining public acceptance of euthanasia by promoting a so-called “right to die”. The group achieved much success by publicly promoting “living wills” as a patient rights document that would give people and/or their families  choice and control at the end of life or, especially after the 1976 Karen Quinlan case, if their quality of life was considered too poor.

Karen Quinlan’s case (where despite predictions,  she continued to live for years after her ventilator was removed) effectively extended the “right to die” to non-terminally ill people said to be in a “persistent vegetative state”, a term invented in 1972 to describe brain-injured people who were awake but assumed unaware.

The later cases of Nancy Cruzan and Terri Schiavo  further extended the “right to die” to withdrawal of feeding tubes and other basic medical care.

Eventually the Euthanasia Society of American became The Society for the Right to Die and finally evolved into Compassion and Choices and the “right to die” became “death with dignity” by lethal overdose.

ETHICS COMMITTEES

Ethics committees in hospitals began to emerge after the Quinlan case as an alternative to controversial court cases and became more prevalent in the 1980s, especially after the Baby Doe case in 1982. That case involved a newborn boy with Down Syndrome and an easily correctable defect that prevented him from eating safely. The parents refused the surgery and were upheld by a judge. An appeal was started but the baby died of starvation and dehydration before his appeal could be heard. Disability, pro-life and other groups and individuals were outraged.

Concerns about lethal medical discrimination against infants with disabilities resulted in the Baby Doe Regulations mandating maximal care to any impaired infant, unless certain exceptions are met.

However, there was much medical and legal opposition to these rules and:

“By the end of 1984,  the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Hospital Association issued statements supporting the use of interdisciplinary ethics committees as an alternative to governmental investigation in such cases.” (Emphasis added)

AN UNEXPECTED PROBLEM

But a surprising development happened on the way to privatizing life and death decisions through ethics committees.

Some people and families resisted and insisted that medical treatment be continued for themselves or their loved ones despite a “hopeless” prognosis and the recommendations of doctors and/or ethicists to stop treatment. Many doctors and ethicists were appalled that their expertise would be challenged and they theorized that such families or patients were unrealistic, “in denial” about the prognosis or were mired in guilt or dysfunctional family relationships.

However, these doctors and ethicists were shocked when in 1991, a court ruled in favor of the husband of Helga Wanglie when he insisted that treatment be continued for his wife despite a “persistent vegetative state” diagnosis.

That court decision was widely criticized in ethics circles and in 1999, Texas enacted a medical futility law.

THE TEXAS ADVANCE DIRECTIVES ACT

In 1999, Texas became the first state to expressly permit doctors to stop life sustaining treatment without consent after a review process by an ethics committee. According to the Texas Advance Directives Act, when care is deemed “futile” or “inappropriate” and the patient or family disagrees,  the patient or family is given 10 days to find another health facility for the patient and pay for “any costs incurred” in the transfer. “If a provider cannot be found willing to give the requested treatment within 10 days, life-sustaining treatment may be withdrawn unless a court of law has granted an extension. “ (Emphasis added)

Thus an ethics committee becomes the equivalent of a death panel.

This kind of ethics committee overreach has now spread far beyond Texas. For example in 2002, I was involved in a similar a case in Missouri involving a brain-injured man despite the state not having a Texas-style law.  It was difficult to find another health care facility to accept the man within the 2 week deadline given by the hospital but ultimately the man not only survived but recovered after the transfer.

The Texas law is now being challenged in the case of Evelyn Kelly, individually, and on behalf of the estate of David Christopher Dunn v Harris Methodist Hospital, a case where a terminally ill, conscious man’s mother fought the ethics committee’s decision to remove his ventilator.

Although Mr. Dunn has since died, the case continues on the question of whether the Texas law is constitutional or not.

In the summary judgement motion filed, Ms. Kelly and her lawyers state that the ethics committee’s action “is an alarming delegation of power by the state law” and “is a far cry from the due process intended to protect the first liberty mentioned in Article 1, Section 19 of the Texas Constitution and that of the Fourteenth Amendment”. (Emphasis added)

Mrs. Kelly and her lawyers make a good point. How can a life and death decision be automatically delegated by law to an unregulated, unaccountable group of individuals outside the legal system?

Even worse, how can the right to live have less legal protection than the “right” to be dead?

The answers to these questions are critically important.