Conscientious Objection and the Duty to Refer

When the Trump administration announced a new department of Conscience and Religious Freedom, the pushback from abortion and assisted suicide proponents like Planned Parenthood and Compassion and Choices was immediate and accompanied by apocalyptic predictions of harm to patients.

Now the term “conscientious objection” is increasingly being used rather than “conscience rights” when it comes to health care professionals. I believe this is not accidental. The term “conscience rights” is a powerful and accepted term about individual rights while “conscientious objection” is associated with the traditional definition of  “A person who refuses to serve in the military due to religious or strong philosophical views against war or killing” and who “may be required to perform some nonviolent work like driving an ambulance.” (Emphasis added)

Nevertheless, in a March 30, 2018 Medscape (password protected) article titled “Should Clinicians With Conscientious Objections Be Protected?”, well-known ethicist Arthur L. Caplan, PhD criticizes the new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division as an expensive “overreaction” that can be mediated by allowing health care professionals to refuse to provide a legal act (like abortion or assisted suicide in certain areas NV) but requiring them “to tell patients where they can go and how they can go about getting it.”

This echoes last year’s New England Journal of Medicine article “Physicians, Not Conscripts — Conscientious Objection in Health Care” by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel (one of the architects of Obamacare) and Ronit Y. Stahl, PhD. who insist that medical professionals “cannot completely absent themselves from providing these services” and are still required to convey “accurate information” and provide “timely referrals to ensure patients receive care.”

The authors even state that:

“Health care professionals who are unwilling to accept these limits have two choices: select an area of medicine, such as radiology, that will not put them in situations that conflict with their personal morality or, if there is no such area, leave the profession. “ (Emphasis added)

Their rationale for this extreme position is that “the patient comes first, which means the patient’s conscience and autonomy receive priority over those of the physician.”  (Emphasis added)

However, this could now conflict with the recently amended federal Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) that states:

 “No qualified health plan offered through an Exchange may discriminate against any individual health care provider or health care facility because of its unwillingness to provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.”

and

“The Federal Government, and any State or local government or health care provider that receives Federal financial assistance under this Act (or under an amendment made by this Act) or any health plan created under this Act (or under an amendment made by this Act), may not subject an individual or institutional health care entity to discrimination on the basis that the entity does not provide any health care item or service furnished for the purpose of causing, or for the purpose of assisting in causing, the death of any individual, such as by assisted suicide, euthanasia, or mercy killing.” (All emphasis added)

THE DUTY TO “CONVEY ACCURATE INFORMATION” AND “REFER”

Ironically, do groups like Planned Parenthood and Compassion & Choices really want to require a medical professional opposed to abortion and/or assisted suicide to convey accurate information?

First of all, medical referrals require a measure of trust. For example, no doctor or nurse would knowingly refer a patient to another doctor or organization that he/ she considers incompetent or unethical or for a procedure the medical professional considers harmful to the patient. When a patient asks for procedures like abortion or assisted suicide, the medical professional should be free to refer the patient to support services like crisis pregnancy centers, etc. or to an ethical palliative care specialist, mental health expert, etc. The medical professional should also be free to convey accurate information regarding abortion such as  how abortions are performed, potential physical and emotional complications, fetal development, etc.  With assisted suicide, the medical professional should be free to discuss such issues as the potential complications of a lethal overdose, the potential effects on family and friends, the criminal/ civil immunity of the assisted suicide doctor if the assisted suicide goes awry, etc.

Medical professionals should also have the right to be honest and tell patients if they personally don’t know any doctor or organization that they would recommend to provide a referral for abortion or assisted suicide.

Patients, especially those in distress, need a well-informed medical professional who really listens to their concerns and responds with facts and helpful options rather than one who just hands out a “politically correct” referral.

CONCLUSION

The so-called duty to perform/participate in a life-ending procedure or refer for one is not really about conscience rights but rather another way to extinguish resistance to abortion and assisted suicide, normalize such procedures into standard medical practice and discourage/bully ethical health care professionals into leaving or never entering the medical professions.

Those of us who believe in medical ethics as, first and foremost, doing no harm to patients must actively fight this for the sake of our professions and for the safety of the public that puts their lives in our hands.

If we don’t speak up for our medical professions and our patients, who will?

 

The New Federal Conscience and Religious Freedom Division

As a nurse threatened with termination for refusing to participate in an unethical health care decision years ago, I have a special interest in conscience rights for health care professionals.

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.

Thus, I am pleased that the Trump administration just announced the new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division  in the department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to enforce “federal laws that protect conscience and the free exercise of religion and prohibit coercion and discrimination in health and human services”. The division specifically mentions “issues such as abortion and assisted suicide (among others) in HHS-funded or conducted programs and activities” and includes 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”.

Predictably, both Compassion and Choices and Planned Parenthood immediately condemned the new department.

In a recent fundraising email, Compassion and Choices states that:

 “This office (OCR) is not about freedom; it’s about denying patient autonomy. Under their proposed rules, providers are encouraged to impose their own religious beliefs on their patients and withhold vital information about treatment options from their patients — up to, and including, the option of medical aid in dying. And your federal tax dollars will be used to protect physicians who make the unconscionable decision to willfully withhold crucial information regarding their care from a patient and abandon them when they are most vulnerable.” (Emphasis added)

Planned Parenthood is just as adamant and includes other issues in their reaction:

“OCR is an important office within the HHS that’s meant to protect health care for marginalized communities, including LGBTQ people and underserved women. But the creation of the new “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” paves the way for discrimination against people for a variety of reasons — be it their gender identity, sexual orientation, or decision to access a safe, legal abortion.” (Emphasis in original)

A SHORT RECENT HISTORY OF FEDERAL CONSCIENCE RIGHTS PROTECTIONS

In response to declining numbers of doctors willing to do abortions in the 1990s, efforts began to mainstream abortion into the health professions such as requiring abortion training for OB/GYNs, shifting training and practice into teaching hospitals and  integrating abortion into regular health care.

The National Abortion Federation along with Medical Students for Choice, pushed for change and in 1995, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education ruled that OB/GYN residency programs must include abortion training or lose accreditation.

That was overturned the next year with the Coats Amendment passed by Congress but  efforts to marginalize pro-life medical professionals continued, especially with newly passed physician-assisted suicide laws and well-publicized withdrawal of feeding tube cases like Terri Schiavo’s.

In 2008, the Christian Medical Association compiled a list of dozens of real-life cases of discrimination in health care, including doctors, medical students, nurses and pharmacists.

That same year, President Bush strengthened the HHS rules protecting the conscience rights of doctors and nurses to refuse to perform abortions.

In 2011, the Obama administration dismantled key provisions of the Bush administration conscience rights rules.

That same year, 12 New Jersey nurses faced firing for refusal to participate in abortion and had to rely on groups like Alliance Defending Freedom to bring a  lawsuit defending their rights. They were finally vindicated in 2013.

Right now, Wisconsin is considering a physician-assisted suicide bill that states a doctor’s refusal to prescribe the lethal drugs or refer the patient to a willing doctor “constitutes unprofessional conduct”.

Obviously, conscience rights cannot depend just on litigation, conflicting state laws or professional organization positions like the American Medical Association’s  or American Nurses Association’s that don’t vigorously defend conscience rights.

As explained on the Dorsey Health Care group website ,

“In January 2018, OCR announced a proposed rule to strengthen conscience-based protections for individuals and entities with objections to certain activities based on religious belief and moral convictions.”

“OCR now proposes to return much of 45 CFR part 88 to its 2008 Bush-era form, adding a requirement that certain recipients of HHS funds certify they comply with conscience protection laws and notify individuals of their rights thereunder”, enhance investigative and enforcement abilities and expands its enforcement authority to more conscience-protection laws than the 2008 or 2011 iterations. It will also “handle complaints [both formal and not], perform compliance reviews, investigate, and seek appropriate action,” including terminating funding and requiring repayment. OCR states “that a more centralized approach to enforcement of conscience protections is necessary in part due to rapidly rising complaints.” (Emphasis added) Comments on this proposed rule can be submitted by March 27, 2018.

CONCLUSION

Health care professionals with pro-life views have been under attack for decades. It’s more than just not being “politically correct”; the very existence of such health care professionals threatens the appropriation of health care by groups dedicated to promoting abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia as civil rights.

Without strong conscience rights protections like a successful Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, they will succeed in making health care termination-friendly.

But in the end, enforcement of the most basic civil right of health care professionals to provide care for patients without being required to participate in life-destroying  activities should not be determined by politics or popularity polls but by the acceptance of the universal principle of respect and protection for human life.

 

Swedish Citizen Unmasks a Main Physician-assisted Suicide Propaganda Point

Oregon, the first US state to legalize physician-assisted suicide, is routinely promoted by advocates as having the model law for assisted suicide. Now the debate has come to Sweden.

The Swedish National Council of Medical Ethics, an advisory board to the Swedish government and parliament, published a November 20, 2017 report, Assisted Death: A Knowledge Compilation” (an English translation is coming) “to promote a more fact-based debate on assisted dying” and states that the Council “does not take a stand on assisted dying in the report”.

However, Fabian Stahle, a Swedish private citizen who read the report, found a problem.

In his article “Oregon Health Authority Reveals Hidden Problems with the Oregon Assisted Suicide Model” , he notes that:

“As a basis for their reassurance of no slippery slope in the Oregon model, the authors of the Swedish report note that there is one question that is ‘the crucial issue’: is anyone with a non-terminal, chronic disease granted medical assisted death?” (Emphasis in original)

But Mr. Stahle notes that the report says elsewhere that the six-month limit on expected survival time applies, “if no treatment is given to slow down the course of the disease” (Emphasis in original)  and thus “might complicate the the whole idea that the law only applied to the ‘untreatable’ sick where nothing could be expected to extend life beyond six months”.

So Mr. Stahle says he did his own investigation by contacting the Oregon Health Authority himself.  Craig New, Research Analyst with the Oregon Health Authority  replied and told him that:

“…your interpretation is correct: The question is: should the disease be allowed to take its course, absent further treatment, is the patient likely to die within six months” (Emphasis added)

Fabian Stahle went further by asking if the doctor suggests to a eligible patient a treatment that possibly could prolong life or transform a terminal illness to a chronic illness or even cure the disease but the patient refuses, would that patient still be eligible for physician-assisted suicide.

He gave the example of a patient with a chronic disease like diabetes who refuses life-sustaining medication/treatment and becomes likely to die within 6 months and asked if that person would be eligible for assisted suicide.

Oregon’s Mr. New answered yes and that if the patient does not want treatment, that would also be their choice-along with the choice for assisted suicide.

As Fabian Stahle observes, this “allows a sanctioned path to suicide, aided by a physician, for anyone with a chronic illness who is likely to die within six months if they chose to stop treatment.” (Emphasis in original)

Fabian Stahle then asked about patients with a chronic disease whose health insurance company is not willing to pay for the treatment/medication.

Oregon’s Mr. New responded that:

“I think you could also argue that even if the treatment/medication could actually cure the disease, and the patient cannot pay for the treatment, then the disease remains incurable.” (Emphasis added)

And thus the patient is considered eligible for assisted suicide under Oregon’s law. This is especially outrageous.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Unfortunately, much of the public just accepts the Compassion and Choices propaganda that physician-assisted suicide is a safe “choice” with strict regulations for terminally and incurably ill people who are going to die soon anyway. Unfortunately, a mostly sympathetic mainstream media concurs and portrays assisted suicide as a “humane” last resort for extreme cases.

But now, Fabian Stahle, a Swedish private citizen, has done what few people do today even with such a life and death issue: He actually investigated the topic and contacted the Oregon Health Authority to clarify what “terminal” and “incurable” really legally means in Oregon’s “model” law.

Of course, there are many other problems with physician-assisted laws but Mr. Stahle focused on the one cited by the Swedish National Council of Medical Ethics as ‘the crucial issue’: is anyone with a non-terminal, chronic disease granted medical assisted death?”

Mr. Stahle is right to question this. The latest Oregon report on their assisted suicide law shows a range of diseases from cancer to undefined “other illnesses” as well as 43 people whose “ingestion status” of the prescribed overdose is unknown and obviously not followed up to see if or when they died.

Having written medical news analysis articles in the past for a national newspaper, I am appalled by the routine lack of investigative interest in life or death issues like assisted suicide from today’s mainstream media. The public needs and deserves better.

I wish Fabian Stahle was eligible for a Pulitzer Prize.

Compassion and Choices Celebrates as the Massachusetts Medical Society Becomes the 10th State Medical Association to Succumb to the Physician-assisted Suicide Agenda

In 1980, the Hemlock Society (now known as Compassion and Choices) was formed to  work for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide by proposing state legislative bills, voter initiatives and public advocacy.

These efforts failed until finally in May 1994, the Oregon Medical Association changed its position opposing physician-assisted suicide to neutrality.

Six months later, Oregon voters approved the very first US physician-assisted suicide law 51% to 49%.

Not surprisingly, now the Oregon Medical Association “supports the position that ‘death with dignity’ (aka physician-assisted suicide) is part of the doctor-patient relationship”.

Obviously, the neutrality of the medical association was a big factor in getting the first physician-assisted suicide law passed in the U.S. as well as its eventual integration into Oregon’s health care system.

Now, Compassion and Choices, the now well-funded promoter of assisted suicide and other death “choices”, is celebrating that:

“The Massachusetts Medical Society is the 10th American Medical Association chapter that has dropped its opposition to medical aid in dying and adopted a neutral stance on the practice, including nine of them in the last two years. The others are the California Medical Association in 2015, Colorado Medical Society in 2016, Maryland State Medical Society in 2016, Medical Society of the District of Columbia in 2016, Maine Medical Association in 2017, Minnesota Medical Association in 2017, Nevada State Medical Association in 2017, Oregon Medical Association in 1997 and Vermont in 2017.” (Emphasis added)

And that:

“Massachusetts’ ‘neutral engagement’ position is even better than a simply neutral position,” said Rebecca Thoman, M.D., campaign manager for Doctors for Dignity for Compassion & Choices. “It means if Massachusetts enacts a medical aid-in-dying law, the medical society will offer education and guidance to physicians who want to incorporate medical aid in dying into their practices.” (Emphasis added)

Ironically, as the Boston Globe reported in January 2017,:

“The vote before the Massachusetts Medical Society was whether to approve a survey — just a survey — of members’ attitudes toward “medical aid in dying.” …

In the end, the policy-making body decisively endorsed the survey and approved $25,000 to fund it — a sign that the Massachusetts Medical Society may be reconsidering its historic rejection of what it has called “physician-assisted suicide.’’ It comes as this movement to give terminally ill patients an option to end their life at a time of their choosing is gaining traction, propelled in part by some physicians’ groups dropping their longstanding opposition. (Emphasis added)

The surveys were ultimately sent to 25,000 doctors but only 12 to 13 percent were returned. Of those returned, approximately 60 percent of respondents wanted the medical society to rescind its opposition to physician-assisted suicide, while 40 percent wanted to keep the policy.

The most fundamental medical ethic of not killing or helping patients kill themselves must not be reduced to a popularity contest.

If this radical change in medical ethics results in the Massachusetts legislature legalizing physician-assisted suicide or by yet another voter referendum, the Compassion and Choices agenda to legalize assisted suicide throughout the U.S. will continue to accelerate to the detriment of the health care system, ethical health care providers and all medically vulnerable people.

Defending Physician-assisted Suicide

In a recent letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal,  Dr. David Grube, national medical director of Compassion and Choices, defended physician-assisted suicide by stating:

“I knew that the people who requested it didn’t want to end their life. They loved life but realized they had an incurable, terminal disease and didn’t want to suffer needlessly as the inevitable end of life approached.

The proof is that more than one-third of terminally ill Oregonians who obtain the medication never take it, but they get great comfort in knowing they have access to it if they need it, which helps them suffer less.” (Emphasis added)

Is this really the crucial argument to upend our medical and legal ethics to legalize physician-assisted suicide?

Especially when more than 33% of people approved for assisted suicide don’t use the lethal overdose prescriptions, this should be a wake-up call for assisted suicide activists as well as suicide prevention groups and the rest of society.

As a former oncology (cancer) and hospice nurse who cared for many terminally ill patients including relatives over decades, I encouraged my patients and family members to talk about all their concerns. I found very few who wanted to end their lives out of fear of future suffering. I  reassured my patients and relatives that we would make them as comfortable as possible and support them until their natural death. Not one died by suicide and all died with true dignity.

But this was before physician-assisted suicide began to be legalized, glamorized and  promoted by activists, especially through sympathetic media outlets.

WHERE IS THE FOLLOW UP ON THE PATIENTS WHO DON’T TAKE THE LETHAL OVERDOSE?

What happened to these patients who decided not to take the lethal overdose? Did they unexpectedly improve or find their symptoms adequately treated? Was the terminal diagnosis wrong? Did they find the physical, emotional and spiritual support to continue living?

Unfortunately, those writing state assisted suicide reports are apparently not interested in this important information that could help save other lives.

WHAT HAPPENS TO THE UNUSED LETHAL OVERDOSE?

Another concern is what happens to the lethal overdose that the patient does not take?

In any home health situation, every unused dose of a controlled medication must be accounted for and disposed of carefully. We know how important it is to keep such medication out of a child’s reach or from misuse by a family member or friend. Keeping overdoses for possible future ingestion is obviously dangerous, especially when our nation is in the middle of an opioid crisis that now kills almost 100 Americans every day.

However when it comes to unused lethal overdoses in assisted suicide, Death with Dignity’s advice is that:

“Anyone who chooses not to ingest a prescribed dose or anyone in possession of any portion of the unused dose must dispose of the dose in a legal manner as determined by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency or their state laws, if any.”

CONCLUSION

When even assisted suicide supporters admit data suggests that the “distress prompting patients to request these lethal medications primarily stems from their fear over losing control at the end of life” but claim that the more than 33% who don’t take the prescribed lethal overdose should still have it to supposedly “get great comfort in knowing they have access to it if they need it”,  physician-assisted suicide is further exposed as a terrible response to human fear and despair.

As our National Association of Pro-life Nurses states, patients need us to take their hands, not their lives.

 

Can There Really Be a “Safer” Physician-assisted Suicide?

In August, I wrote a blog “Physician-assisted Suicide and the Palliative Care Physician”  about Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter,  a palliative care doctor in California who approved of physician-assisted suicide, would want it for herself but had still had serious some qualms about actually writing for the lethal overdose herself.

In the end, Dr. Zitter decides that assisted suicide can be rendered “safe” by being rare and practiced by specially trained medical practitioners as “just one tool in the toolbox of caring for the dying-a tool of last resort.”

Thus, Dr. Zitter, perhaps unknowingly, gives support to the Compassion and Choices goal of “normalizing” and “integrating” physician-assisted suicide into standard medical practice. Note  their own description of their activities:

“We help clients with advance directives, local service referrals and pain and symptom management. We offer information on self-determined dying when appropriate and provide emotional support through a difficult time. 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. Compassion & Choices devotes itself to creative legal and legislative initiatives to secure comprehensive and compassionate options at the end of life.” (Emphasis added)

Now in her new article “De-Medicalizing Death”, Dr. Zitter is excited about a new University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Health Centers’ program where “only” 25% of patients went on to commit physician-assisted suicide after an “intake process…conducted by trained psychotherapists (psychologists and clinical social workers) instead of physicians”.

Ironically, current physician-assisted suicide laws tout the “safeguard” that “If, in the opinion of the attending physician or the consulting physician, a patient may be suffering from a psychiatric or psychological disorder or depression causing impaired judgment, either physician shall refer the patient for counseling.” (Emphasis added),  But that only means evaluating a patient’s competence, not the diagnosable mental disorders that afflict more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide, is required. Thus, it should not be surprising that only 3.8% of people using physician-assisted suicide in Oregon were even referred for psychiatric evaluation in 2016, unlike the standard of care for other suicidal people.

Also, the UCLA new intake process for physician-assisted suicide that so excites Dr. Zitter paradoxically undermines the common media depiction of a terminally ill person in unbearable pain desperate for immediate relief:

“The intake consisted of an extensive set of questionnaires designed to assess all possible sources of distress. Any patient with physical or psychiatric needs was referred on to the appropriate services. But as the UCLA committee expected, most of what patients needed was to discuss their feelings about their approaching death and process their grief and sense of loss. This mirrors data from the entire state of California as well as Oregon, which suggest that the distress prompting patients to request these lethal medications primarily stems from their fear over losing control at the end of life. It is not, as many may think, due primarily to physical suffering.” (Emphasis added)

And

“Anne Coscarelli, psychologist and founding director of the Simms/Mann–UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, described the conversations that came from this intake process as revelatory and comforting for the patients. Several patients ultimately completed legacy projects, such as video or written messages and stories, for their children and grandchildren. This invitation to talk, which opens up a discussion that most of us are taught to avoid, turned out to be a game-changer”. (Emphasis added)

And, I would add, this “game-changer” ultimately resulted in most patients NOT dying by assisted suicide.

As a former hospice and oncology nurse, this kind of listening and support is very familiar to me. We gave our patients such care along with symptom control and our patients died with real dignity with their families supported as well.

Personally, I was never even once tempted to help end any of my patients’ lives.

CONCLUSION

Dr. Zitter is like many people. The idea of controlling one’s own death or avoiding watching a loved one slowly die is very seductive. But, as Dr. Zitter has unwittingly discovered, suicide is the loneliest kind of death and very amenable to intervention.

On the other hand, the legalization and approval of physician-assisted suicide reinforces the underlying despair that leads even many healthy people to think death is the solution to their problems.

When “Losing autonomy” and “Less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable” are the top two end of life concerns of Oregon’s assisted suicide victims in 2016, we have a bigger societal problem than an alleged lack of enough lethal overdose prescriptions.

We need true caring and support, not abandonment to suicide of any kind.

Don’t Tell John McCain to Fight His Cancer?

Arthur Caplan, PhD is an influential ethicist who recently wrote a Medscape (password protected) article titled “Don’t Tell John McCain to Fight his Cancer after the news broke about Sen. McCain’s brain cancer and many of his colleagues and others encouraged him to fight hard against his cancer.

Caplan does acknowledge that the these people mean well but writes:

“Cancer could not care less whether you are a fighter or not. What evidence there is does not show that adopting a fighting stance helps in terms of survival. I have seen many fighters die of cancer, and some who chose not to be seen as fighters live longer than others who did.

And there is an implication that if you are not a fighter, then you must be a coward or worse. This suggests that the only option available to anyone who is courageous is to choose to fight—to utilize every surgery, complementary medicine, chemotherapy, and experimental option.”

Senator McCain has a glioblastoma, which Caplan calls “a very nasty brain cancer” where the “odds of beating this cancer are long.” Caplan says the senator is brave “however he chooses to treat it or not”.

But as you might remember, this is the same cancer that Brittany Maynard, a young newlywed, had when her scheduled physician-assisted suicide was heavily publicized in 2014 to raise money for Compassion and Choices’ campaign to legalize assisted suicide throughout the US.

Unfortunately, Ms. Maynard’s case also made ethicist Caplan an outspoken supporter for legalizing physician-assisted suicide in the US-the ultimate surrender to illness-because of allegedly strong state regulations that he believes would not lead to the shockingly expansive legal assisted suicide/euthanasia situations in Holland and Belgium.

(Ironically and a few months after Ms. Maynard’s assisted suicide, CBS’ “60 Minutes” TV show aired a segment on a promising new experimental treatment for glioblastoma  that appeared to eliminate the cancer without destroying brain tissue in some patients. Ms. Maynard was not mentioned.)

DEALING WITH A DISMAL CANCER PROGNOSIS

For several years in the 1980s and 90s, I worked in oncology (cancer) and hospice with patients both in the hospital and in their homes.  Over the years, I also personally cared for several relatives and friends who had cancer.

Here are two stories, one about a friend and the other about a relative. One chose to try to beat her cancer and the other decided against aggressive treatment.

A friend in her 60s I will call “Carol” started coughing constantly a few years ago and saw a doctor who diagnosed a widespread lung cancer with a poor prognosis. Carol decided to try as hard as possible to beat the cancer. Friends and family were invaluable in getting her through a tough time with surgery, chemo and radiation. At one point, she was in very rough shape and we all were worried.

But against all predictions, Carol is now hale and hearty with a cancer that is in remission. She enjoys traveling all over the US, visiting family and friends. She seems to have more energy than the rest of us do. Carol remains realistic about the possibility of her cancer returning but is living her life to the fullest day by day.

I also had an older aunt diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2000. She refused the extensive surgery option because of the low rate of success and difficulty. Back then, the chemo option offered had only a 20% chance of remission and the side effects could be severe.

She decided against both options to live in her own home with help from us and hospice for several months until a week before her death when she needed 24 hour care. Although always a quiet person before her cancer diagnosis, my aunt found great satisfaction in sharing her story and serving as an inspiration to others. Her eventual death was peaceful.

Both of these women made informed decisions and each “fought” cancer in their own way. I salute them both.

CONCLUSION

Ethicist Caplan has a point when he states that “Cancer could not care less whether you are a fighter or not”. People should never feel guilty or worried that they didn’t fight hard enough when they face death from cancer. But neither should they feel discouraged from trying to prevail over their cancer.

A realistically hopeful attitude for a good life whatever the length of time, especially along with support from others, can turn a tough situation into a life newly appreciated and well-lived whatever the final outcome of a cancer diagnosis.

An Interview with an Assisted Suicide Doctor

It’s not often that we get a glimpse into the assisted suicide movement from the perspective of a medical professional who actually participates in terminating the lives of the terminally ill. Most seem to prefer anonymity.

But in a fascinating American Society of Clinical Oncology Post interview Examining the Impact of ‘Death With Dignity’ Legislation”, oncologist Charles D. Blanke MD, FACP, FASCO talked not only about his recent medical journal article “Usage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act” but also his surprises and concerns about the almost 20 year old Oregon law.

‘SURPRISING FINDINGS”

When Dr. Blanke was asked if anything had surprised him about the findings in his article, he replied

“I was a bit surprised by how rarely the prescribing or consulting physicians refer patients for a psychiatric consultation. According to our study, only 5% of patients received these referrals. In national surveys, many psychiatrists say that depression among terminally ill patients would disqualify them from participating in physician-aided death.

I was also surprised to learn how rarely a physician is present when the patient takes the medication—in only 17% of cases is that so. My guess is that physicians aren’t asking what their patients would prefer, because when I’ve asked my patients if they would like me to be present when they take the medication, 100% say “yes. (Emphasis added)

When asked about the spike in the numbers of lethal prescription in the last two years of his study,  Dr. Blanke replied that:

“There are several factors, including greater national awareness of this issue and the fact that there are several other states now with this legislation in place. Also, some of the medical societies that formerly opposed the law, such as the American Medical Association, have softened their stance and agreed to study whether they should be neutral on physician-assisted death.” (Emphasis added)

Note: Actually, the AMA has not officially changed it opposition to physician-assisted suicide although assisted suicide supporters hope for this. However, the American Society of Clinical Oncology has taken no official position on physician-assisted suicide, which is actual neutrality.

PALLIATIVE CARE, INFORMED CONSENT AND CONSCIENCE RIGHTS

Sadly, while Dr. Blanke says he is a big supporter of palliative care, he went on to also state:

“However, I strongly feel that there are some patients you simply cannot palliate. They have concerns about their quality of life and their ability to do the things they enjoy, they are suffering relentlessly, and they want to take back some control over their life. Physician-aided death not only doesn’t cause harm, in my estimation, it can give people that extra bit of control over their life, including the 33% of patients who fill the prescription but never take it. Just having the prescription on hand gives patients an immense feeling of control and comfort. (Emphasis added)

On informed consent, Dr. Blanke does acknowledge that:

“There certainly is worry that a family member might push the medication on a patient because of financial concerns, but that scenario is harder to measure. Rarely, you do get a sense that there may be some outside pressure on patients to take the medication” (Emphasis added)

Instead, Dr. Blanke says that in his experience, it usually is the patient who wants the lethal overdose and the family members who oppose it.  Ironically, assisted suicide laws do not require even notification of family members-at least until after death.

And on conscience rights for those medical professionals who refuse to participate or refer, Dr. Blanke  states that:

“Physicians have an ethical obligation—not to offer the option, if they are personally opposed to it—but to understand what the process entails, to be knowledgeable enough to explain to patients the pros and cons of their decision, and to refer them to a physician if they still want to pursue physician-assisted death….Sticking your head in the sand and refusing to take part at all during this critical time in a patient’s care does a huge disservice to that patient.” (Emphasis added)

Yet, responding to a question on the ethical or moral dilemmas assisted suicide laws pose for oncologists, Dr. Blanke states:

“We have patients who are suffering horribly, and we are helping to end their suffering, so I don’t see how that can be construed as harming our patients.

However, physicians are also faced with the reality of giving a patient a medication that is guaranteed to kill that patient, and regardless of your position on these laws, taking that action is very challenging for any human being, let alone a physician. ” (Emphasis added)

 

CONCLUSION

Over the years, I have seen some of my health care colleagues-like the general public-begin to tentatively approve assisted suicide in the usual polling question about a hypothetical case in which a person is terminally ill and in “unbearable pain”. (Ironically, Oregon’s law does not even mention “pain” or “suffering” as a necessary criteria to be approved  for assisted suicide.)

But I found there are very few fellow professionals who are actually willing to perform or even witness such a death. This is apparently why Compassion and Choices, the former Hemlock Society, also needs to provide help in finding doctors to write lethal prescriptions.

We must realize that there are no winners when assisted suicide is legalized-not the patient, the health care system, society or even the assisted suicide practitioner.

Health Care Bullying Over Conscience Rights

Years ago, some of my fellow nurses were talking about assisted suicide and two of them supported physician-assisted suicide. I asked if they were comfortable with participating in an assisted suicide. Both were shocked and said no.

They believed the myth that doctors just write lethal prescriptions that patients then go home and take privately. It never occurred to them that they could be involved if the assisted suicide occurred in a healthcare institution, home health situation, etc. where they-unlike the doctor-could not just walk away.

These nurses were unaware that there were already nursing journal articles like “Assisted Suicide: What Role for Nurses?”  (2000) that quoted one Oregon hospice administrator:

“Initially, when the law was designed, the assumption was that physicians would be the first ones to explore PAS with patients…but in reality, nurses are usually the ones in the line of fire.

While Compassion and Choices leaders now talk about “integrating” and “normalizing” assisted suicide in end of life care , this 17 year old article already stated that “Much of nurses’ roles lies behind the scenes long before the drama of PAS unfolds. Home care and hospice nurses actively help patients understand their rights, acting as advocates for those who are considering PAS.” (Emphasis added)

Now, two recent articles expose the lengths that assisted suicide activists will go to  legally bully health care professionals to participate in medically assisted suicide.

VERMONT

In an April 5, 2017 article titled “This State is Trying for Force Doctors and Health Care Workers to Give Patients Info on Assisted Suicide”, the Alliance Defending Freedom organization  filed a lawsuit against Vermont’s Act 39, arguing that

“Vermont’s Act 39 makes the State the first and only one to mandate that all licensed healthcare professionals counsel terminal patients about the availability and procedures for physician-assisted suicide, and refer them to willing prescribers to dispense the death-dealing drug. Act 39 coerces professionals to counsel patients about the ‘benefits’ of assisted suicide—benefits that Plaintiffs’ members do not believe exist—and in addition stands in opposition to a federal law protecting healthcare professionals who cannot participate in assisted suicide for conscientious reasons.” (Emphasis added)

CANADA

In a stunning March 28, 2017 Canadian Catholic Register article titled “Doctors being ’bullied’ over assisted suicide, legislators told at Bill 84 hearings” , doctors in Ontario, Canada spoke out about “being bullied, silenced and coerced in a pro-euthanasia environment which is forcing those who object to medically assisted suicide to provide an “effective referral” for patients who wish to die”. (Emphasis added)

Dr. Jane Dobson testified about the pressure she has faced: “If I don’t comply, I face fines and the possible suspension of my license.”

University of Toronto School of Medicine professor Dr. Maria Wolfs added that medical schools are facing pressure to “weed out students who might object to assisted suicide”. (Emphasis added)

Psychiatrist Dr. Janice Halpern testified that the policy is also “at odds with the subtleties of a psychiatric doctor-patient relationship and asked how long can a psychiatrist work with a patient “on finding their will to live again” before referring the patient for assisted suicide.

The Canadian Supreme Court legalized physician-assisted suicide in 2015 and as of the end of 2016, at least 744 people have died from physician assisted suicide with Ontario having the highest number.

One doctor who assisted the suicide of at least 40 patients in 2016 said that those numbers will increase “to the point of the Netherlands and Belgium because their laws are similar to ours, and that would mean about 5 % of all deaths.”

UNEXPECTED CONSEQUENCES

Ironically, there has been an unusual backlash in Canada.

According to a February 2017 article in Canada’s National Post newspaper , an increasing number of doctors performing assisted suicide are now saying “‘Take my name off the list, I can’t do any more”.  As the article states:

“In Ontario, one of the few provinces to track the information, 24 doctors have permanently been removed from a voluntary referral list of physicians willing to help people die. Another 30 have put their names on temporary hold.”

And

“The Canadian Medical Association says reports of doctors backing away from the act are not just anecdotal. “I can’t tell you how many, but I can tell you that it’s enough that it’s been noted at a systemic level,” said Dr. Jeff Blackmer, the CMA’s vice-president of medical professionalism.”

CONCLUSION

Groups like Compassion and Choices depend on assisted suicide being portrayed as a victimless and necessary medical intervention while, at the same time, they oppose conscience rights for ethical doctors and nurses trying to help and protect their patients and their professions.

However, it is hard to escape the reality that legally forced participation in medically assisted suicide damages the health care system, health care providers and even patients.

Why Physician-assisted Suicide Cannot be a Civil Right

Although groups like Compassion and Choices insist that assisted suicide is a civil right despite the 1997 US Supreme Court unanimously finding no constitutional right to assisted suicide,  this is a recipe for disaster.

Civil rights means equality under the law so equality in assisted suicide means that the “right” to assisted suicide logically cannot remain limited to just mentally competent adults with a prognosis of 6 months and able to give themselves lethal overdoses by mouth. What about the non-terminally ill person with paralysis who can’t take the lethal overdose by himself or herself? What about the person with Alzheimer’s who is no longer mentally competent to make the decision for medically assisted suicide? What about the lucid chronically mentally ill person who wants to end years of struggling?

It is inevitable that assisted suicide as a civil right must necessarily expand to anyone using any prescribed method for any situation deemed intolerable.

We have already seen this happen in European countries like Holland and Belgium as well as the current lethal injection assisted suicides in Canada and now even paired with organ donation.

ECONOMICS AND BURDENS

A recent Canadian study predicted that physician-assisted suicide could save Canada up to $139 million dollars each year.

The study’s author states that “Neither patients nor physicians should consider costs when making the very personal decision to request, or provide, this intervention” but the reality is that people, especially older individuals, do worry about being a financial and/or physical burden on their families and almost 50% of assisted suicide victims in the latest 2016 Oregon report cited “burden on family, friends/caregivers” as a concern.

I am not surprised. My own mother often told me that she never wanted to be a burden on her family even before she developed Alzheimer’s and terminal cancer. Mom thought she was just being a loving mother without realizing that such an attitude and statement can have lethal consequences even outside of assisted suicide.

For example, years ago when I worked in oncology, I cared for a delightful elderly woman with cancer whose doctors recommended another chemo treatment. My patient confided that she did want to try it but feared becoming more of a “burden” on her daughter’s family with whom she lived.

I told her that I had just spoken to her daughter the day before and the daughter told me how grateful she was for her mother’s presence and help. For example, the daughter said that since she and her husband both worked, they were relieved to have the mother there for their school-age children when classes ended. The daughter told me how the children loved climbing into bed with grandma and telling her about their day.

My elderly patient was almost reduced to tears but by this revelation but then she laughed and admitted that sometimes she fell asleep when the children were talking to her.

I told my patient that whatever else she needed to consider before agreeing to the chemo, fear about being a “burden” should be eliminated.

CONCLUSION

People with disabilities are especially right to be concerned about the coercion of economics and perceived “burdens” of living when assisted suicide is legalized.

I learned this first hand when my daughter Karen was born with Down Syndrome and a severe heart defect. Even though I insisted that my daughter be treated the same as any other child with this condition, I was shocked by the responses of some fellow health care providers.

One doctor actually said that “People like you shouldn’t be saddled with a child like that”.  I was shocked and challenged him that, since my husband and I were medical professionals and especially able to care for a child with a heart problem and Down Syndrome, exactly who were these “right kind” of parents? Apparently none.

Later on, when Karen was secretly made a Do Not Resuscitate while hospitalized for pneumonia because I was supposedly “too emotionally involved with that retarded baby”,  I was shocked to how easily choice can indeed become an illusion when it comes to people with disabilities.

Unfortunately, it is a very small step from “I wouldn’t want to live (or have a child) like that” to “no one should have to live (or have a child) like that”.

Legalizing the demand for medical professionals to help end the lives of only certain people cannot be a true civil right or ultimately  even limited to “just” the mentally competent terminally ill.