Caring for an Elderly Relative who Wants to Die

I was disturbed but not really surprised when I read the October 21, 2020 New England Journal of Medicine article by Scott D. Halpern, M.D, Ph.D., titled “Learning about End-of-Life Care from Grandpa”.

Dr. Halpern, a palliative care doctor and ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote about his elderly grandfather who had been widowed for the third time and wrote “My life was over too, only existence remained,” in a memoir for his family.

As Dr. Halpern writes, “It was downhill from there” as his grandfather coped with challenges like blindness, deafness and arthritis.

Family members offered to care for him but the grandfather chose to go into an assisted living facility where family members could visit him frequently. But then, Covid 19 visitations cut him off entirely from the outside world.

Eventually, the grandfather was allowed to see relatives one at a time outdoors at the facility.

Nearing his 103rd birthday, the grandfather started asking Dr. Halpern about “any plausible option to hasten death”.

New Jersey had recently approved physician-assisted suicide, but Dr. Halpern was “ambivalent” about that option. In addition, his grandfather did not have a terminal illness but rather was “dying of old age, frailty, and more than anything else, isolation and meaninglessness”.

Alarmingly, Dr. Halpern found that the medical code for this diagnosis called “adult failure to thrive” was being used not only used to access hospice but also to access physician-assisted suicide in some states.

Unable to find a New Jersey doctor willing to use physician-assisted suicide on his grandfather anyway, Dr. Halpern offered his grandfather the option of VSED (voluntarily stopping of eating and drinking) to hasten or cause death that the pro-assisted suicide group Compassion and Choices touts as “natural” and legal in all states.

THE TRUTH ABOUT VSED

Dr. Halpern wrote that his grandfather had trouble refusing food and water on his own. He started and stopped the process a few times.

Dr. Halpern was not surprised, writing that:

“ For people with a consistent desire to end their life, unencumbered by mental illness or immediate threats to their survival, the only alternative — to stop eating and drinking — is just too challenging. Hospice experts around the country had warned me that less than 20% of people who try to do so “succeed,” with most reversing course because of vicious thirst.” (Emphasis added)

Finally, Dr. Halpern’ write that his grandfather said “I just want it over with. Scott, do whatever you need to do.”

Dr. Halpern writes that he consulted his hospice team and began treating his grandfather’s thirst “as I treat other forms of discomfort — with morphine and lorazepam” (Emphasis added)

Even then, it took 12 long days for his grandfather to finally die.

The lessons that Dr. Halpern says he finally learned were that:

“despite many problems with physician-assisted dying, it may provide the most holistic relief possible for people who are not immediately dying, but rather are done living.”

And

stopping eating and drinking is largely impossible without knowledgeable family members and dedicated hospice care.” (All emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

Dr. Halpern obviously loved his grandfather and tried to meet his grandfather’s emotional and physical needs before telling him about the VSED option and eventually adding terminal sedation. And it seems that the imposed isolation because of potential Covid 19 infection was especially devastating for his grandfather.

But his justification for physician-assisted suicide as “the most holistic relief possible for people who are not immediately dying, but rather are done living” is chilling.

Unfortunately, that is an attitude seen all to often in medical professionals that has led to the expansion of some assisted suicide laws from terminal illness to non-terminal conditions like “completed life” and disabilities.

Both personally and professionally as a nurse, I know how difficult it can be on families when caring for a family member-especially an older relative-who says he or she wants to die.

But I also know that while we all can have sympathy for someone who says they want to die, the word “no” can be a powerful and loving response. The real answer is to help make living as good and meaningful as possible until death.

For example, I became the only caregiver when my elderly aunt developed diabetes and late-stage pancreatic cancer in 2000.

I went to doctor visits with her and went over the options with her. My aunt rejected chemo and radiation that had only a small chance of even slowing the cancer. She also refused hospice.

I offered to care for her in my home with my 15 year old daughter who also wanted to help. However my aunt felt it would cramp my daughter’s lifestyle so she decided to stay in her own home until she died.

So I helped her at home and purchased my first cell phone so that she could contact me at anytime. At that time, I was a single parent and worked full time nights in an ICU.

However, one day my aunt asked me about stopping her insulin to die faster. I told her how that could put her at risk for a heart attack or stroke from high blood sugar with no one there to help.

So she changed her mind and then even began opening up about her condition with others. She was stunned when people told her how inspiring she was and offered to help her in any way.

My aunt became happier than I had ever seen her.

Eventually, my aunt did accept hospice care at a facility she knew. I visited and called often. My aunt was physically comfortable and alert.

One day when my daughter and I went to visit her, we found that she had just died quietly in her sleep. The nurses had just stepped out to call me.

My daughter later wrote a beautiful essay about her first experience with death for her high school and received an A+. Her essay was later published on a nursing website.

In the end, causing or hastening death does not really solve anything but rather can be seen as an abandonment of the suffering person and a destroyer of the necessary trust we all must have in the ethics of our healthcare system.

We must never discriminate when it comes to helping anyone contemplating suicide.

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Think the Political and Cultural Divisions in Our Country are Bad? The Divisions in Medical Ethics Could Cost Your or a Loved One’s Life!

I wanted to be a nurse since I was 5. I was drawn to nursing not only because I wanted to help people but also because medical ethics standards were so high, especially in contrast to some of the corrupt business practices that I saw.

I graduated from a Catholic nursing school in 1969 and spent the next 50 years working mostly in intensive care but also in home health and hospice, oncology (cancer), kidney dialysis, volunteer work and on ethics committees.

I first noticed the change in medical ethics when the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 legalized abortion for the first three months of pregnancy. I was working in intensive care at the time and found that my fellow medical professionals who supported the abortion decision angrily rebuked those of us who were shocked that the first rule of medical ethics we were taught-First, Do No Harm-was eroding.

Then in 1982, my doctor husband and I were shocked by the Baby Doe case where the parents received a judge’s approval to let their newborn son with Down Syndrome die instead of repairing an easily correctable hole between the tube that leads from the throat to the stomach and the  tube that leads from the throat to the windpipe and lungs.  While lawyers were appealing his case and many parents (including my husband and me) wanted to adopt Baby Doe, the newborn starved and dehydrated to death without the desperately needed surgical repair.

My husband asked “What has happened to medical ethics??” but we both knew the answer: babies with Down Syndrome are often unwanted and aborted.

Five months after Baby Doe died, our third child Karen was born with Down Syndrome and a reparable heart defect but the heart doctor gave us a choice to “let” our baby die without surgery. We refused but my former trust in the medical system was shattered.

After I suddenly became a single parent in 1988, I had to return to a paid nursing job to support my three children but found a drastically different medical ethics system.

I found that during the 1970s, medical ethics began to evolve into the newer “bioethics”, even in Catholic hospitals.

This new bioethics has essentially four principles:

1. Respect for autonomy (the patient’s right to choose or refuse treatment)

2. Beneficence (the intent of doing good for the patient)

3. Non-maleficence (not causing harm)

4. Justice (“fair distribution of scarce resources, competing needs, rights and obligations, and potential conflicts with established legislation”) Emphasis added.

Unfortunately, those principles are malleable and then used to justify actions and laws that would have been unthinkable when I graduated from nursing school. That bioethics mindset changed not only medical and nursing education but also the principles that informed our work.

Even the Hippocratic Oath, the oldest and most widely known treatise on medical ethics that forbade actions such as abortion and euthanasia that medical students routinely took upon graduation, has now been revised or dropped at many medical schools.

SOME MEDICAL ETHICS DIVISIONS THAT CAN COST YOU OR A LOVED ONE’S LIFE

Abortion

The American Medical Association, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Nurses Association and other healthcare organization that used to condemn abortion are now supporting “abortion rights”.

Abortion on demand and taxpayer-funded has now been deemed a “civil right” by Planned Parenthood and many Democratic politicians throughout pregnancy to birth and even beyond. Alternatives to abortion such as free pregnancy tests, counseling, ultrasounds, maternity and baby clothes, diapers, car seats, bassinets, etc. are not options at Planned Parenthood but rather at non-profit crisis pregnancy centers.

As a parent of an unwed teenage daughter, I support these services and give thanks for my now 22 year old granddaughter.

Assisted suicide/euthanasia

In the early 1970s when I was a young ICU nurse, none of us medical professionals had even heard of a “living will”. There was a universal presumption for life and “quality of life” was something to be improved, not judged.

Nevertheless, sick people could and did refuse treatment and even check themselves out of the hospital against medical advice. When patients appeared to be dying, they or their families could agree to a “do not resuscitate” (DNR) order. Treatments could be ethically refused when such measures were considered medically futile or excessively burdensome for the patient. But one thing we didn’t do was offer to withhold or withdraw medical care like tube or even spoon feedings to cause or hasten a patient’s death. And it was unthinkable that medical professionals could assist even a dying patient’s suicide.

Unknown to us, all this began to change after Louis Kutner, a Chicago lawyer, wrote a 1969 article in the Indiana Law Journal titled Due Process of Euthanasia: The Living Will, A Proposal” in 1969. (emphasis added).

By 1970, The Euthanasia Society of America (later renamed the Society for the Right to Die) distributed 60,000 living wills. In 1976, California passed the nation’s first “living will” law and in 1990, The US Congress passed the Patient Self-Determination Act that requires information to be given to patients about their rights under state laws governing advance directives (commonly called “living wills), including the right to accept or refuse medical or surgical treatments.

Now, 8 states and the District of Columbia have assisted suicide laws and Compassion and Choices, the largest advocacy group for medically assisted suicide, is using the Covid 19 pandemic to push for telehealth (the provision of healthcare remotely by means of telecommunications) for medically assisted suicide.

Infanticide

In my nursing school 50 years ago, we were taught medical ethics and one example used was the case of a newborn with Down Syndrome who needed life-saving surgery but whose parents refused, choosing to let him die. We were told that the law would protect such children from medical discrimination-even by the parents.

Now we have cases like Charlie Gard and Simon Crosier and others whose parents chose life for their babies with disabilities but were thwarted by doctors and courts.

Organ donation

When I started working in an ICU in 1971, I had questions about the brain death diagnosis for organ harvesting but was told not to worry because there were strict rules.

However and over subsequent years, I discovered that the rules for organ donation have been changing from brain death to other criteria including severe brain injury. There have even been proposals for “presumed consent” state laws where people would have to register an “opt-out” or be automatically presumed to consent to organ donation.

I do not have an organ donor card nor encourage others to sign one. Instead, I once offered to give a friend one of my kidneys as a living donor. Although I was not able to donate then, my family knows that I am willing to donate tissues like corneas, bone, etc. that can be ethically donated after natural death and will only agree to that donation

Conscience rights

Doctors and nurses used to be protected when asserting their conscience rights when refusing to deliberately hastening or causing a patient’s death.

Now, even that protection-which protects both patients and medical professionals-is under attack.

I discovered this personally several years ago when I was almost fired for refusing to increase a morphine drip “until he stops breathing” on a patient who didn’t stop breathing after his ventilator was removed.

CONCLUSION

The bottom line is that everyone must remain vigilant when they or a loved one becomes seriously ill, regardless of the hospital or institution. It is also important not to be afraid to ask questions.

There are also non-denominational, non-profit groups like the National Association of Pro-life Nurses, the Healthcare Advocacy and Leadership Organization and state and national pro-life organizations that have much useful information and resources for patients, families and the public.

The bottom line is that what we don’t know-or allowed to know-can indeed hurt us. We need to demand transparency and the highest ethical standards from our doctors and healthcare system before they can earn our trust.

And without a change in laws, policies and attitudes promoting deliberate death as an answer to human suffering, those of us medical professionals who believe we should never cause or hasten anyone’s death may become an endangered species-as well as our medically vulnerable patients.

Palliative Care and Artificial Intelligence for Predicting Death

Working in areas like critical care, oncology (cancer) and hospice for over 45 years, I know that it is often hard to predict how long someone may live or when that person may die.

I have seen very ill or injured people with an optimistic prognosis  unfortunately die and I have seen people expected to die very soon who recovered and went on to live for years. Back then, we used pain and other specialists, social workers, ministers, etc. for all our patients when needed. Some of our patients went into hospice.

In recent years, a new specialty called palliative care was developed to improve the quality of life for patients who have a serious or life-threatening disease with the goal of preventing or treating as early as possible, the symptoms and side effects of the disease and its treatment, in addition to any related psychological, social, and spiritual problems.

So I was very interested to read a July 1, 2020 article in StatNews titled “An experiment in end-of-life care: Tapping AI’s cold calculus to nudge the most human of conversations about using cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) models in palliative care that scan patient hospital medical records and generate emails to doctors about their patients considered most likely to die within a year.

In the case of one doctor who received such an email,  she “was a bit surprised that the email had flagged” her patient who was in his 40s and seriously ill with a viral respiratory infection and too sick to leave the hospital. She thought “Why him? And should she heed the suggestion to have that talk?”

As the article states, those kinds of questions are increasingly cropping up among health care professionals at the handful of hospitals and  clinics around the country using such AI models in palliative care, stating that:

The tools spit out cold actuarial calculations to spur clinicians to ask seriously ill patients some of the most intimate and deeply human questions: What are your most important goals if you get sicker? What abilities are so central to your life that  you can’t imagine living without them? And if your health declines, how much are you willing to go through in exchange for the possibility of more time? (Emphasis added)

Some clinicians and researchers defend this AI by saying that doctors are “stretched too thin and lacked the training to prioritize talking with seriously ill patients about end-of-life care”.

Not surprisingly, the leaders of this palliative care AI discourage doctors from mentioning to patients that they were identified by an AI system because, as one doctor put it, ”To say a computer or a math equation has predicted that you could pass away within a year would be very, very devastating and would be really tough for patients to hear.”

Shockingly, while this AI is built around patients’ electronic health records, this article admits that some AI models also “sample from socioeconomic data and information from insurance claims.” (Emphasis added)

CAN AI RELIABLY PREDICT DEATH?

As the article admits, AI predictions of death “are often spotty when it comes to identifying the patients who actually end up dying” and that there has not been “a gold-standard study design that would compare outcomes when some clinics or patients are randomly assigned to use the AI tool, and others are randomly assigned to the usual strategies for encouraging conversations about end-of-life care.” (Emphasis added)

Nevertheless, using AI death predictions for earlier palliative care interventions is now also being tried for conditions like dementia. And last year in Great Britain, AI was touted as “better than doctors” in analyzing heart tests to determine which patients would die within a year.

ARE THERE OTHER AGENDAS?

The idea of basing medical decisions on a computer program to predict death is disturbing enough but there may be other agendas involved.

For example, in a May, 2020 Cancer journal article titled  “Leveraging Advances in Artificial Intelligence to Improve the Quality and Timing of Palliative Care”, the authors called palliative care “a discipline of increasing importance in the aging population of the industrialized nations.”  (Emphasis added

And according to a Hospice News article last year:

“Studies have found that palliative care saves health plans, health systems, and accountable care organizations close to $12,000 per person enrolled, as well as reducing hospital readmissions, emergency department visits, and hospice lengths of stay. “

Now Compassion and Choices (the former Hemlock Society) is not only fighting to legalize medically assisted suicide throughout the US, it has also been active in promoting training and expansion of palliative care with federal funding and now calls assisted suicide “one option in the palliative continuum” and that knowing assisted suicide “is an option is in itself palliative care.” (Compassion and Choices already maintains that VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) is already an ethical and legal means of ending life in the US.)

Even worse, a large and growing number of medical organizations-including the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM)-have endorsed or taken a neutral position on the issue of physician-assisted suicide.

CONCLUSION

An artificial intelligence program predicting death cannot replace the importance of an ethical healthcare provider who knows and truly respects the lives of his or her patients.

Good palliative care can be wonderful but, as I have written before, palliative care can go horribly wrong when misused.

We need to know the difference before we are able to trust that our own healthcare providers will  give all of us the care we need and deserve, especially at the end of our lives.

 

Covid 19 and the Culture of Death

“Ironically, the Covid 19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on how far our healthcare ethics has fallen from the ideal of  respecting every life to the dangerous notion that some lives are expendable-even our own.”

I have written about how the Covid 19 pandemic has resulted in dangerous and unethical responses like ventilator rationing,  unilateral DNRs, and some states ordering nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to accept coronavirus patients discharged from hospitals.

But now,  the Covid 19 crisis has also spawned new ideas such as the American Clinicians Academy On Medical Aid in Dying’s policy recommendations on medically assisted suicide requests by telemedicine in the context of Covid 19  and Covid 19 advance directives aimed at refusing potentially life-saving treatment.

Compassion and Choices, the former Hemlock Society that promotes assisted suicide, voluntary stopping of eating and drinking (VSED) and terminal sedation, now has a Covid 19 toolkit with a special Covid 19 addendum  to add to an existing advance directive to refuse care if a person gets Covid 19. The addendum even contains the question:

“Do you want your healthcare proxy to have the ability to override any of these orders if he or she believes you have a reasonable chance of living a life consistent with your values and priorities based on the information provided by the doctor? Or, do you want these orders followed no matter what?” (Emphasis added)

Another organization “Save Other Souls”, headed by an MD and an ethicist, has an “altruistic” advance directive for Covid 19 that states:

“In the event of shortages during the period of a declared emergency related to COVID-19, and in order to direct resources to others, I am willing to receive palliative care instead of: Critical medical equipment (ventilator, ECMO, etc.), Medication (other than palliative), Placement in a hospital care unit that provides critical care.” (Emphasis added)

Even more disturbing, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) has a new resource for Crisis Standards of Care for the “ethical allocation of scarce medical resources during a disaster” that:

“provides a framework for healthcare professionals to utilize a predetermined framework to determine which individuals will receive life saving care during an emergency event or disaster and which ones will not. With the event of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE), it is important for palliative and hospice care providers to be familiar with Crisis Standards of Care.” (Emphasis added)

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), founded in 1978, is the nation’s largest membership organization for providers and professionals who care for people affected by serious and life-limiting illness”. NHPCO states that it “represents the interests of its members and the general public with legislative advocacy that helps to enhance and expand access to care that addresses holistic health and the well-being of communities.” (Emphasis added)

Not surprisingly, the NHPCO has supported  the problematic Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act, currently still in the US Congress awaiting passage.

CONCLUSION

The Covid 19 pandemic is especially terrifying to many people but we must realize that just like any other serious or terminal illness, we must act responsibly and ethically in caring for people with Covid 19.

While medical treatment that is medically futile or unduly burdensome to the person can be ethically refused or withdrawn, refusing or removing ordinary medical treatment or deliberately oversedating a person in order to cause or hasten death is unethical. Even when we think it may help another person get care.

We need to know the difference, especially when it comes to making out living wills” or other advance directives.

Ironically, the Covid 19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on how far our healthcare ethics has fallen from the ideal of  respecting every life to the dangerous notion that some lives are expendable-including our own.

 

 

Accidental Oversight or Deliberate Omission in new Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act?

With the enthusiastic support of Compassion and Choices (which promotes legalizing assisted suicide throughout the US), the first Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (PCHETA) was introduced in Congress in 2016  to allow millions of dollars in federal grants to, in the bill’s words, “increase the number of permanent faculty in palliative care at accredited allopathic and osteopathic medical schools, nursing schools, social work schools, and other programs, including physician assistant education programs, to promote education and research in palliative care and hospice, and to support the development of faculty careers in academic palliative medicine.”

While palliative care has been traditionally defined as “compassionate comfort care that provides relief from the symptoms and physical and mental stress of a serious or life-limiting illness” and hospice care as “compassionate comfort care (as opposed to curative care) for people facing a terminal illness with a prognosis of six months or less, based on their physician’s estimate”, the PCHETA bill may radically change such care.

I started writing  about the potential dangers with the PCHETA bill in Congress in 2018 when it was passed by the US House of Representatives and sent to a Senate Committee for approval. The PCHETA stalled there, thought to be at least partially due to concerns by some U.S. senators about the bill’s potential problems with hastening of death and legalized assisted suicide  despite a “clarification” in the bill that that “None of the funds made available under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act) may be used to provide, promote, or provide training with regard to any item or service for which Federal funding is unavailable under section 3 of Public Law 105–12 (42 U.S.C. 14402)” such as assisted suicide, euthanasia or mercy killing.

So after the bill stalled, a second “clarification” was added to the Senate bill (now S. 2080) in July, 2019 that states “Sec. 5(b) ADDITIONAL CLARIFICATION.—As used in this Act (or an amendment made by this Act), palliative care and hospice shall not be furnished for the purpose of causing, or the purpose of assisting in causing, a patient’s death, for any reason.” (Emphasis added)

This second clarification is critical because, as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops representative Greg Schleppenbach, has written:

“This provision is important because for the first time anywhere in federal law or regulations it explicitly states that palliative and hospice care cannot be furnished for the purpose of causing or assisting in causing death.  These protective provisions were added as a condition of our support for this bill.” (Emphasis added)

But on October 28, 2019, the House PCHETA (HR 647) bill that does NOT contain the second clarification was reintroduced and quickly passed by the US House of Representatives on a voice vote  and sent to the Senate for approval. That bill is now in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. (Senators can now be contacted by even email.)

OPPOSITION TO THE PCHETA BILL CONTINUES

Even with the second clarification, many groups continue to voice concern about the PCHETA bill because many of us nurses and doctors are seeing unethical practices such as assisted suicide, terminal sedation, voluntary stopping of eating, drinking (VSED) and even spoon feeding, etc. being used to cause or hasten death but often called palliative or “comfort care” for such patients.

We worry that the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (2019) can allow federal funding to teach and even institutionalize such unethical practices without sufficient oversight, safeguards or penalties.

Julie Grimstad of the Healthcare Advocacy and Leadership Organization (HALO) also voices concerns about funding new palliative care and hospice programs, citing the 2019 Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General report titled Vulnerabilities in Hospice” that documented serious problems.

She also cites Dr. Farr A. Curlin, a palliative medicine specialist at Duke University, who warns that:

“When the goal of HPM (Hospice and Palliative Medicine) shifts from helping patients who are dying to helping patients die, practices that render patients unconscious or hasten their death no longer seem to be last-resort options,” [emphasis added]

HALO is joined by other groups who officially oppose PCHETA S.2080 such as the National Association of Pro-life Nurses  and the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition USA

CONCLUSION

Whether or not the omission of the second clarification in the bill sent to the Senate was intentional, the omission validates the genuine concern many of us have that the traditional end of life care ethic to neither hasten nor postpone dying is rapidly being replaced by “quality of life” judgments, economic concerns and patient “choice” to die.

Nurse Vindicated After Being Forced to Participate in an Abortion

In 2018, I wrote about “The New Federal Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” established by the Trump administration as a desperately needed help for those of us health care professionals whose conscience rights have been ignored or threatened and included a link to report complaints even online.   Now in fiscal 2018 alone, the division says it has received and dealt with more than 1300 complaints.

Most recently and thanks to the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division and with help from the American Center for Law and Justice, an unnamed nurse who was forced into assisting in an elective abortion in 2017 has been vindicated.

On August 28, 2019, the US Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced that, after a thorough investigation and attempts to resolve the issue, the OCR issued a Notice of Violation to the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) for forcing that nurse to assist in an elective abortion over her conscience-based objections and even though other nurses were available.

The OCR found that the UVMMC had discriminatory policies that assign or require employees to assist abortion procedures even after they record their moral or religious objections. UVMMC now must conform its policies to the long-standing Church amendments that protect the conscience rights of individuals or entities that object to performing or assisting abortions and take corrective action or “face potential action by the HHS from which UVMMC has received federal funding”.

The notice also noted that for the last 3 years UVMMC “reported that it cumulatively expended $1.6 million of federal financial assistance.”

The unnamed nurse, who no longer works at UVMMC, told the American Center for Law and Justice that she was misled into thinking she was assisting in a miscarriage but then found out that it was an elective abortion. However, her superiors “callously refused to relieve her”.  Fearing retaliation, she went through with assisting the abortion and was traumatized.

According to the American Center for Law and Justice, at least four other nurses, have now confirmed that they had been subjected to similar violations of their conscience rights.

As the American Center for Law and Justice also noted, even though the Church amendments were enacted after the US Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973,  they always lacked a mechanism for enforcement by private citizens. Enforcement depended on the Health and Human Services department. Unfortunately that enforcement has, for all intents and purposes, been nonexistent until recently.

Now the new division has put some teeth into enforcement.

CONCLUSION

As I have written before, groups like Compassion and Choices (the former Hemlock Society) and Planned Parenthood have vehemently criticized the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, claiming that it would allow medical professionals “to impose their own religious beliefs on their patients and withhold vital information about treatment options” as well as “pave the way for discrimination against people for a variety of reasons.”

The fundamental right not to perform or assist in deliberate death procedures terrifies these organizations that depend on medical professionals willing to assist suicides or perform abortions.

Therefore, we must all make sure that the whims of politics never again interfere with the fundamental right of medical professionals to “Do no harm”.  This is not only for their protection but also for our own.

 

 

 

The National Association of Pro-life Nurses Statement Opposing the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (2019)

The National Association of Pro-life Nurses joins the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition USA and the Healthcare Advocacy and Leadership Organization (HALO) and other organizations in opposing the  Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (2019) H.R. 647, S.2080.  (HALO has issued an action alert with the contact numbers for legislators on the Senate committee considering this bill.)

As nurses, we strive to care for our seriously ill, disabled and terminally ill patients with compassion and the highest ethical standards. We applaud the medical innovations and supportive care options that can help our patients attain the highest quality of life possible.

However now many of us nurses are now seeing unethical practices such as assisted suicide, terminal sedation (with withdrawal/withholding of food, water and critical medicines), voluntary stopping of eating, drinking and even spoon feeding, etc. used to cause or hasten death but often called palliative, “comfort” or routine hospice care for such patients.

We believe that the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (2019) will allow federal funding to teach and institutionalize such unethical practices without sufficient oversight, safeguards or penalties.

For example, the Section 5 Clarifications (p. 21) against federal funding for objectionable practices “furnished for the purpose of causing, or the purpose of assisting in causing, a patient’s death, for any reason” is toothless. Such practices are already  considered acceptable by many influential hospice and palliative care doctors like Dr. Timothy Quill, a board-certified palliative care physician, 2012 president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine and promoter of legalizing physician-assisted suicide and terminal sedation.

It is also disturbing the Compassion and Choice, the largest and best funded organization promoting assisted suicide and other death decisions,  has a mission statement stating:

“We employ educational training programs, media outreach and online and print publications to change healthcare practice, inform policy-makers, influence public opinion and empower individuals.”

and a “Federal Policy Agenda / 2016 & Beyond”  goal to:

Establish federal payment for palliative care consultations provided by trained palliative care professionals who will advocate for and support the values and choices of the patient….” (All emphasis added)

As nurses, we are also very concerned that the Act contains no conscience rights protection for those of us-doctors and nurses alike-who will do anything for our patients except deliberately end their lives or help them kill themselves.

Many of us have already faced threats of termination of employment for refusing to participate in unethical, life-ending practices without support from our nursing organizations like the American Nurses Association that recently dropped their traditional opposition to physician-assisted suicide and voluntary stopping of eating and drinking.

For the sake of protecting our patients, the integrity of our medical and nursing professions as well as our healthcare system, we urge the public and our congressional representatives to oppose this dangerous Act.

 

Press Release: The National Association of Pro-life Nurses Condemns the American Nurses Association Decision to Drop Its Long-standing Opposition to Assisted Suicide

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?

 

Contact

Marianne Linane RN, MS, MA, National Association of Pro-Life Nurses Executive Director

📞  (202) 556-1240
✉  Director@nursesforlife.org

Nancy Valko, RN ALNC Spokesperson for the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses

📞 (314)504-5208

Website: www.nursesforlife.org

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Nurses4life/

 

 

American Nurses Association Damages Good Nursing with Misleading “No Stance” on Assisted Suicide

In 2017 and despite opposition by nurses and groups like the National Association of Pro-life Nurses, the American Nurses Association (ANA) approved a new position on “Nutrition and Hydration at the End of Life” supporting a form of suicide called VSED ( voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) to “hasten death”.

The ANA also stated regarding VSED that nurses who have “an informed moral objection….should communicate their objections whenever possible, to provide safe alternative nursing care for patients and avoid concerns of patient abandonment” (Emphasis added)

In March 2019, the American Nurses Association (ANA) then wrote a draft position paper “The Nurse’s Role When a Patient Requests Aid in Dying” that would have dropped the ANA’s long-standing opposition to physician-assisted suicide and even change the term “physician-assisted suicide” to “medical aid in dying”. The paper would require nurses to be “non-judgmental when discussing end of life options with patients”, and that nurses who object to assisted suicide are still “obliged to provide for patient safety, to avoid patient abandonment, and to withdraw only when assured that nursing care is available to the patient.

In other words, nurses would have to abandon their vital role in the prevention and treatment of people with suicidal ideation for some of their patients when the issue is assisted suicide. Conscience rights could only be invoked if free from “personal preference, prejudice, bias, convenience, or arbitrariness”. (Emphasis added)

Many people responded with shock and dismay, including many nursing organizations like the National Association of Pro-life Nurses and even the Canadian Catholic Nurses Association  that warned about their experience after assisted suicide was legalized there in 2015:

“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.” (Emphasis added)

THE FINAL POSITION

Now the ANA has issued its final position on “The Nurse’s Role When a Patient Requests Medical Aid in Dying” (aka physician-assisted suicide) that claims it is not “a stance for or against medical aid in dying but rather to frame the nurse’s compassionate response within the scope of practice”. (Emphasis added)

However, this new final position has the same problems as the draft when it states that a nurse should:

 “Remain objective when discussing end-of-life options with patients who are exploring medical aid in dying”

And now, a new requirement is added for the nurse who objects to participating in assisted suicide:

“Never ‘abandon or refuse to provide comfort and safety measures to the patient’ who has chosen medical aid in dying. Nurses who work in jurisdictions where medical aid in dying is legal have an obligation to inform their employers that they would predictively exercise a conscience-based objection so that appropriate assignments could be made.” (All emphasis added)

This obligation to preemptively inform employers about objections to participating in terminating life opens a nurse to potential discrimination, bullying or even termination of employment, not to mention the chilling effect on ethical men and women considering a nursing career.

CONCLUSION

In its press release on the final position, the ANA states that its new position is “a step in a new direction for ANA and provides guidance for almost 1 million registered nurses in the U.S. who practice in the nine jurisdictions where medical aid in dying (MAID) is legal.” The ANA also states that “This statement 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.” (All emphasis added)

However, the ANA also claims that it ‘is the premier organization representing the interests of the nation’s 4 million registered nurses’ even while  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 along with the American Medical Association (AMA) are the best known health care professional organizations and both are very politically active.

Ironically and just last month, the AMA House of Delegates decisively reaffirmed the AMA’s long-standing opposition to assisted suicide while the ANA has now surrendered its influence to the pro-assisted suicide movement.

Just as bad, the ANA has now effectively abandoned ethical nurses’ conscience rights when it comes to deliberate death decisions.

Although we now have the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division established by the Trump administration in the Office for Civil Rights to enforce already existing “federal laws that protect conscience and the free exercise of religion and prohibit coercion and discrimination in health and human services” and has a link to file a conscience or religious freedom complaint, it’s final rule implementation has now been delayed by lawsuits.

As assisted suicide and other such deliberate death decisions continue trying to expand, it is more necessary than ever that all of us-the public as well as healthcare professionals-understand and fight the pro-death movement to regain our trust in the healthcare system.

Final Federal Conscience Protection Rule Delayed Because of Lawsuits

Last year, I wrote about the new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division established by the Trump administration in the Office for Civil Rights to enforce already existing “federal laws that protect conscience and the free exercise of religion and prohibit coercion and discrimination in health and human services”. The division specifically mentioned “issues such as abortion and assisted suicide in HHS (Health and Human Services)-funded or conducted programs and activities”. The division also included a link to file a conscience or religious freedom complaint “if you feel a health care provider or government agency coerced or discriminated against you (or someone else) unlawfully”.

The rule mandates that institutions receiving federal money be certified that they comply with more than two dozen laws protecting conscience and religious freedom rights.

Despite fierce opposition by groups like Compassion and Choices and Planned Parenthood, HHS announced  on May 2, 2019 that the Final Conscience Rule Protecting Health Care Entities and Individuals  would go into effect July 22, 2019.

However, lawsuits were quickly filed by groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Center for Reproductive Rights, delaying implementation of the Final Conscience Rule until at least late November. The first lawsuit was filed by San Francisco within hours of the announcement of the Rule.

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH CONSCIENCE RIGHTS?

While Roger Severino, the head of the HHS Office for Civil Rights has said that the Final Rule did not add any new laws but rather strengthened the enforcement of rules already on the books, the San Francisco lawsuit alleged that if San Francisco does not comply with the rule “”it risks losing nearly $1 billion in federal funds that support critical health care services and other vital functions.”

In a press release, San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera stated the Final Conscience Rule:

“would have allowed health care professionals to refuse to provide service to patients based on the staffer’s personal beliefs, threatening medical access for women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, and other medically or socially vulnerable populations.”

and that

“Hospitals are no place to put personal beliefs above patient care. Refusing treatment to vulnerable patients should not leave anyone with a clear conscience.”(All emphasis added)

Of course, ethical healthcare professionals respect all patients without bias. The problem is being forced to participate in actions that violate our consciences.

ARE CONSCIENCE AND RELIGIOUS RIGHTS NECESSARY?

Dr. Donna Harrison, director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG) makes the crucial point that:

 “Those who oppose the HHS Conscience Rule demonstrate their clear intention to squeeze out of the medical profession any doctor who still abides by the Hippocratic Oath, and to squelch any opposition to forcing doctors to kill human beings at the beginning and end of life.”

Those of us who are nurses have been especially vulnerable.

As I have written before, I was threatened with termination when I refused to cause a patient’s death by increasing a morphine drip “until he stops breathing”. I know many other nurses who have had similar experiences.

And in 2013, 12 New Jersey nurses who had a long-standing, in-writing agreement exempting them from participating in abortions apart from a medical emergency were nevertheless threatened with termination when the hospital initiated a new mandatory policy to participate in all abortions. These nurses were finally vindicated in court but litigation is time-consuming and expensive.

And even the liberal NPR recently noted the rise in conscience complaints for health care workers since the Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom was established.

Obviously, there is a great need for this conscience rights protection for all healthcare workers. Now there is a way to stand up  to bullying and discrimination so that we can properly care for our patients.

CONCLUSION

A few years ago, a worried student nurse asked if there was any area of nursing where her conscience rights would not be threatened. This was an important question because over the past several decades, new threats to conscience rights have widened from refusing to participate in abortions to other deliberate death decisions like withdrawal of feedings from people with serious brain injuries, VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking), terminal sedation and physician-assisted suicide.

Most recently, the American Nurses Association wrote a draft position paper potentially changing its’ opposition to assisted suicide to neutrality and requiring that nurses must be nonjudgmental in discussing assisted suicide with a patient and even participate if no other willing nurse is available.

As assisted suicide and other such death decisions continue trying to expand, it is more necessary than ever to support ethical healthcare professionals both in law and in practice.

We all need the Conscience Rights Protection rule to ensure that ethical healthcare professionals can continue in their professions and help to restore trust in our healthcare system.