Why is Baby Charlie Gard’s Government-appointed Guardian a Euthanasia Activist? Does It Matter?

So now we learn that Baby Charlie Gard’s guardian is a euthanasia activist who is Chairman of Compassion in Dying, an “end-of-life” advocacy group with a sister organization that supports assisted suicide.

This should not be a surprise.

In a July 19, 2017 New York Times op-ed “Charlie Gard and Our Moral Confusion”, Kenan Malik, who wrote a book on morality and ethics on moral issues, argues:

“In Charlie’s case, the judges decided that it is in his interest to die even with a possibility of treatment. Mr. Conway, in contrast, wants to be allowed to die in dignity, but the law will not permit it. His motor neuron disease is incurable, and he is not expected to live beyond 12 months. His condition is painful, and will become more so. He wants doctors to be able to give him a lethal injection when he decides that it is time to end his life. Under British law, it would be a criminal offense for a doctor to do so.”

“Death with dignity” is the catchphrase and death is considered the ideal end in both of these cases when viewed through the prism of so-called “dignity”.

Unfortunately, this “death with dignity” must be enforced through laws and courts and even down to the medical personnel involved.

“DEATH WITH DIGNITY” AND ITS’ OTHER VICTIMS

In June, a Canadian home health nurse was faced with the option of participating in assisted suicide with her patients or resigning. She resigned and yet another dedicated nurse was lost to the principle of a right to “death with dignity”.

However, Mary Jean Martin was afforded no dignity or rights herself. She was at the mercy of a new health care law that now mandates participation in medical lethal overdoses, an act considered medical murder before.

Ms. Martin called being forced to choose between her conscience and her job a “violation of my human rights.” She wrote:

“Why has my right to peacefully follow my own beliefs within a free and inclusive society been suddenly taken away from me?” she said.

“After 30 years as a nurse these laws make me feel no longer proud of being either a health care professional in this country or Canadian citizen,” she added.

The forced normalization of assisted suicide/euthanasia radically changes medicine for the healthy as well as the ill when only medical professionals willing to participate in assisted suicide/euthanasia are allowed to practice their professions.

CONCLUSION

Whether the issue is denial of food and water to brain-injured people, futility determinations overriding patients’ and families’ decisions, denying potentially beneficial experimental treatment or forcing medical personnel to participate in lethal overdoses, etc., the word “choice” in these cases is a misnomer when only the choice for death is considered “dignified”.

 

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.

My Trip to Georgetown University: The Inspiration of a New Generation

I was honored to be asked to give a talk at the annual Cardinal O’Connor Conference On Life at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. on January 28, 2017, the day after the annual March for Life. To be honest, I believe that I received more from the conference and students than I could ever contribute!

The title of my talk was “Killing or Caring? A Nurse’s Professional and Personal Journey”. I spoke about the progression of the Culture of Death through 4 professional and personal stories from abortion through assisted suicide. My stories included my 1982 fight to save the life of my newborn daughter with Down Syndrome and a severe heart defect against some lethal medical discrimination based on her disability. The second story was about how a young man in a car accident in the early 1970s “miraculously” recovered when we nurses refused to give up after the doctor initially predicted that the young man would at best be a so-called “vegetable” if he lived. The third story was about my daughter who died by suicide in 2009 at the age of 30 using an assisted suicide technique she read about and the tragedy of suicide contagion when assisted suicide is normalized and even glamorized. My last story was how I was almost fired from my ICU unit when I refused to participate in a withdrawal of treatment/terminal sedation euthanasia.

I was so moved by the enthusiastic response of the students to the message that the Culture of Death cannot be ignored or tolerated because evil will always expand until we stop it by demanding the recognition that every life is valuable and worthy of protection. I also loved getting a chance to talk to so many of the students after the talk. They inspired me!

Even on my trips to and from Georgetown University, I met two other inspiring young people. One was a lovely young African-American woman seated next to me on the flight to Washington, D.C. She told me about her career as a police officer patrolling the toughest area in Oakland, California. She also spoke about her passion to help the community and how she embraced the challenges of her choice. Who could not be inspired by that?

The Uber driver who drove me to the airport after my talk was similarly inspiring. It turned out that he was a young nurse who emigrated here from Ethiopia last year and was now studying for his national nursing exam to practice in the U.S. His story was fascinating and when he learned I was a veteran nurse, we had a wonderful discussion about nursing as a great career.

CONCLUSION

We sometimes hear the pessimistic opinion that our next generation is self-absorbed and only interested in money and the next cultural fad.

Based on my experiences in Georgetown, I think that our next generation may prove to be one of the best!

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

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

However, the Register’s reporting ignored one of the most dangerous legal problems in assisted suicide laws: immunity for doctors from “civil or criminal liability or professional disciplinary action for participating in good faith compliance” with the assisted suicide law.  In addition, the secrecy and often yearly destruction of even the minimal information self-reported by the doctors as well as  falsified death certificates listing such deaths as natural effectively destroys any pretense of an enforceable law.

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

THE MISSOURI EXPERIENCE

Missouri’s law against assisted suicide states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FALLOUT AND CONSEQUENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Priority: Public Comments Needed on ANA’s New Draft Position Paper on Denying Food and Water

Although the American Nurses Association (ANA) claims it represents the over 3 million US nurses, only a tiny fraction of nurses actually belong. ANA does not give out the actual number of members. I used to belong both my state nursing organization as well as the ANA to try to uphold good nursing ethics and conscience rights for nurses. I finally gave up when my state organization would not address even the conscience rights of nurses in the Nancy Cruzan feeding tube case. I gave up on the ANA when I discovered that the ANA opposed a ban on partial birth abortion without notifying its membership. I only found this out when I watched a TV show on politics mentioning the ANA position. I called the ANA public relations department myself to protest both their position and not notifying members like me and resigned.

Yesterday, I received a call from a nurse in another state who sent me the website for public comments due by 5 pm ET 12/1/2016 about a proposed new ANA position on nutrition and hydration at the end of life.

The proposed position paper is 9 pages long and I sent the following comments with the referenced lines as requested. It would have taken me many pages to address all the issues:

Lines 18-24.  In the past, the hospice principle of never prolonging or hastening death at the end of life was paramount. Now, this has been subjugated to a legalized autonomy (even when exercised by a third party) to decide when to hasten death.

However, nurses are professionals whose integrity depends on proper respect for their conscience rights, especially when it comes to decisions about hastening death.  This concern is absent in this draft.

We do have such a provision in Missouri law that states:

Missouri Revised Statutes
Section 404.872.1

Refusal to honor health care decision, discrimination prohibited, when.

404.872. No physician, nurse, or other individual who is a health care provider or an employee of a health care facility shall be discharged or otherwise discriminated against in his employment or employment application for refusing to honor a health care decision withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment if such refusal is based upon the individual’s religious beliefs, or sincerely held moral convictions.

(L. 1992 S.B. 573 & 634 § 7)

Line 88: There is no definition of “severe neurological conditions”.
Line 90 on “Dementia, recognized as a terminal illness associated with anorexia and cachexia”.  As a former hospice nurse and caregiver for my mother until her death as well as a volunteer for people with dementia, this is an alarming and potentially dangerous assertion. No one should have to die by dehydration and indeed many people with dementia can be spoon-fed like my mother until natural death. I have likewise seen several people begging for food or water but denied because of a decision not to place a feeding tube or spoon feed.

Lines 101-104. VSED as described is really assisted suicide and implicitly changes ANA opposition to medically assisted suicide.

Also, in a New York Times article in October titled “The VSED Exit: A Way to Speed Up Dying, Without Asking Permission”, Dr. Timothy Quill (past president of the AAPHM and the doctor arguing for the constitutionality of assisted suicide in the 1997 Vacco v Quill US Supreme Court case) was quoted as claiming that while VSED is “generally quite comfortable at the beginning”, he also states that “You want a medical partner to manage your symptoms,” because “It’s harder than you think.”

How hard?

In 2000, Quill and Dr. Ira Byock (a palliative care doctor who speaks against legalizing physician-assisted suicide while also supporting VSED and terminal sedation) wrote an article titled “Responding to Intractable Terminal Suffering: The Role of Terminal Sedation and Voluntary Refusal of Food and Fluids” . The patient was a doctor who wanted to die before his symptoms became worse. He was given a morphine drip that had to be increased to total unconsciousness on day 10 because he became “confused and agitated and began having hallucinations”.

Lines 114-115 cite “Psychological, spiritual, or existential suffering, as well as physical suffering” but only say that “Symptom control is imperative” rather than oppose participation in VSED  for people who are not even terminally ill.

Lines 149-150 state that “Decisions about accepting or forgoing nutrition and hydration will be honored including those decisions about artificially delivered nutrition as well as VSED”. This blanket statement destroys the conscience rights of nurses as well as our duty to advocate for our patients’ best interests. (Emphasis added)

Ironically, the ANA’s 2010 position paper on reproductive rights (i.e. abortion) states that:

“Also,nurses have the right to refuse to participate in a particular case on ethical grounds. However, if a client’s life is in jeopardy, nurses are obligated to provide for the client’s safety and to avoid abandonment.” (Emphasis added) Apparently, the ANA is proposing that the right to refuse to participate ends when the death of the patient is deliberately intended.

CONCLUSION

Just this week, it was reported that a union for Australian nurses is backing voluntary euthanasia. The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (SA branch) is even partnering with other Compassion and Choices-style groups in Australia to pass a voluntary euthanasia bill. This could well be our future here in the US if we do not respond.

As nurses and citizens, we need to fight for truly patient-safe health care by responding to groups like the ANA through comments sections like the one above (which ends December 1) and in the media. We must also support and insist on ethical health care providers for ourselves and our loved ones as well as protecting our patients. As much as we can, we can also help state and national organizations that fight against euthanasia.

Especially if you are a nurse, consider joining the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses and following our Facebook page.

Our profession, our patients and even our nation are at stake!

 

 

Oh, Colorado!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, we will never know.

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

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

CONSCIENCE RIGHTS, CRISIS PREGNANCY CENTERS-AND MORE

A new Illinois law was just signed by Governor Bruce Rauner with dire implications for pro-life health care providers.

As an August 9, 2016 National Catholic Register article titled  “Illinois Law Threatens Conscience Rights, Crisis-Pregnancy Centers” explains, this new law changes the former state Health Care Right of Conscience Act to require that pro-life doctors, nurses and even staff at crisis pregnancy centers  present abortion as a legal treatment option and are required to refer, transfer or give information about where to go for an abortion when a woman says she wants one.

While the terminology about other health care options is vague, the law specifically cites:

“family planning, counseling, referrals, or any other advice in connection with the use or procurement of contraceptives and sterilization or abortion procedures…”

Incredibly, this Illinois law  also defines conscience rights as merely religious:

 “Conscience” means a sincerely held set of moral convictions arising from belief in and relation to God, or which, though not so derived, arises from a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by God among adherents to religious faiths

Ironically, as Kathy Bozyk, who operates the Southside Pregnancy Center in Chicago notes, while she is required by the law to discuss the alleged benefits of abortion and refer women to abortion providers, abortion businesses are not required to make referrals to crisis-pregnancy centers.

Instead, abortion groups like the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) continue to actively fight crisis pregnancy centers, accusing them of false and misleading information as well as threatening women’s safety. They are a strong force working to get laws like this passed.

PUSHBACK

There is an unfortunate and surprising assessment of the law in the NCR article from Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois:

According to the article, Mr Gilligan said that although the Conference was disappointed that the governor signed the law, the Catholic Conference was able to negotiate, with opposing parties, a revision to the original bill that the state’s 43 Catholic hospitals can live with, saying with regard to the requirement to refer, transfer or provide written information on where to find an abortion facility :

He said co-sponsors of the bill said even simply ripping out the pages of a phone book with names of all the local OB-GYNs in a certain area would be enough to comply.

If accurate, is this a helpful or even realistic response?

Fortunately, we have courageous, front-line  health care providers like Kathy Bozyk who refuse to comply, Illinois Right to Life continuing its opposition and pro-life legal groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) who filed a lawsuit in state court against Governor Rauner on behalf of The Pregnancy Care Center of Rockford and the Chicago-based Thomas More Society that plans a lawsuit.

It’s important to note that this Illinois law comes on the heels of a December California law forcing pro-life pregnancy centers and state-licensed medical clinics to distribute information on where and how to obtain a state-funded abortion or face fines of $1000 a day.

So it is imperative that  all of us throughout our nation work to ensure that strong conscience rights be upheld, strengthened, correctly defined and even expanded to include all health care ethics issues, especially in the face of possible or actual assisted suicide laws.

Conscience rights are essential to help us protect our patients from a healthcare system that is increasingly succumbing to a “culture of death” mentality.

Conscientious Objection, Conscience Rights and Workplace Discrimination

The tragic cases of  Nancy Cruzan and Christine Busalacchi , young Missouri women who were claimed to be in a “persistent vegetative state” and starved and dehydrated to death, outraged those of us in Missouri Nurses for Life and we took action.

Besides educating people about severe brain damage, treatment, cases of recovery and the radical change in medical ethics that could lead to the legalization of euthanasia, we also fought for healthcare providers’ rights against workplace discrimination for refusing to participate in deliberate death decisions. We talked to nurses who were threatened with termination.

Although Missouri had some protections against forcing participating in abortion, there were no statutes we could find where health care providers were protected against being forced to participate in deliberate death decisions. We were also told by some legislators that our chance of success was almost nil

Nevertheless, we persisted and after years of work and enduring legislators watering down our original proposal to include lethal overdoses and strong penalties, Missouri Revised Statutes, Section 404.872.1 was signed into law in 1992. It states:

Refusal to honor health care decision, discrimination prohibited, when.

404.872. No physician, nurse, or other individual who is a health care provider or an employee of a health care facility shall be discharged or otherwise discriminated against in his employment or employment application for refusing to honor a health care decision withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment if such refusal is based upon the individual’s religious beliefs, or sincerely held moral convictions.

(L. 1992 S.B. 573 & 634 § 7)

Fast Forward to Today

In 2016, we face groups like Compassion and Choices that have pushed assisted suicide legislation through in some states and hoping for an eventual sweeping Supreme Court decision making assisted suicide a constitutional right like abortion.

Some European countries like Belgium and Holland have virtual euthanasia on demand for even non-terminally ill people of any age. In Canada, their Supreme Court has forced assisted suicide on that country and now the province of Quebec has lethal injection kits available to any doctor.

Not surprisingly, conscience/workplace rights for health care providers are being vigorously fought both in those countries and here in the US.

For example, Compassion and Choices’ Barbara Coombs Lee, one of the architects of Oregon’s assisted suicide law, claims that strong conscience-right protections encourage “workers to exercise their idiosyncratic convictions at the expense of patient care” at the end of life.

Hope on the Horizon?

In May, a hospital in Poland stopped performing abortions after every single doctor signed a pledge refusing to do them.

Now, several hospitals in Santa Barbara  and Palm Springs as well as Providence medical centers are opting out of the new California assisted suicide law.

Personally, I believe that if people are given a choice when they are sick, they would naturally prefer a hospital that is committed to care rather than assisted suicide.

Thus, conscientious objection, workplace discrimination/conscience rights laws and the power of institutions dedicated to ethical health care can help turn the tide against assisted suicide laws or at least save some lives and mitigate some of the damage caused by assisted suicide laws. It may take a long time before killing sick or disabled people is again seen as abhorrent and unethical but the effort will be worth it.

As I have said before, “NO!” is a powerful and potentially lifesaving word.

 

What Is-Or Should Be- the Future of Nursing?

In a recent Medscape News article “Back to the Future of Nursing: What Progress Have We Made?” , Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS reported on the results five years after the national Institutes of Medicine (IOM) issued a 2010 report titled “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health” that was designed to be:

“a wake-up call that exposed the many barriers that prevented the nursing profession from contributing fully to the healthcare system: an aging workforce, regulatory restrictions on nursing practice, fragmentation of healthcare, limited capacity of the nursing education system, and lack of workforce data. It was also a catalyst for finding solutions to these problems.”

The followup report titled “Assessing Progress on the Institute of Medicine Report The Future of Nursing” came out in December 2015 and reported only some progress in their key questions:

  -Have scope-of-practice barricades been pushed aside? Are nurses being permitted to practice to the full extent of their education and licensure?

-Are more nurses earning baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral degrees?

-Are new graduate nurses being transitioned to the profession more safely and effectively through nurse residency programs?

-Does the ethnic composition of the nursing workforce more closely match the level of diversity in the general population?

-Have opportunities expanded for leadership and interprofessional collaboration in healthcare?

If you are a nurse and were unaware of all this, you are not alone. As a full-time ICU nurse, neither I nor my fellow nurses were aware of this study at that time. The only change we noticed was when our hospital suddenly announced  that every RN must have a BSN by 2021 or be terminated.

I wish we had been asked for our input!

WILL MORE DEGREES, DIVERSITY AND EXPANDED RESPONSIBILITIES REALLY HELP NURSING?

Instead of the IOM focus on these issues, I would propose  at least four measures to really help the majority of us who work in health care institutions to provide the quality care we want for our patients as well as to reduce the stresses of nurses that often lead to burnout and quitting the profession.

 1. Consider bringing back the head nurse

When I started nursing over 47 years ago, we had head nurses who knew the patients, doctors and staff by working with them daily to make sure care was coordinated, staffing was adequate,  and problems were addressed quickly.

Now we have managers and other administrators who often are not RNs and who are often rarely seen or available because of endless meetings. The formerly close working relationships with head nurses have now become almost adversarial relationships with managers as cost containment measures, endless new policies based on legal risk, mandated government regulations, inadequate staffing etc., grind down nurses.

 2. Try retention incentives instead of signup bonuses

Years ago when there was a nursing shortage, signup bonuses were offered to potential nurse employees. I was asked by a director of nurses if I thought the bonuses were high enough.

I told this director that it might be better to try retention bonuses since the newly employed nurses we trained often left after the required year of service to get a signup bonus at another hospital. This wasted the money and time used to assign a precepting nurse to support the temporary new nurse during the weeks-long orientation to our hospital policies and procedures.

A retention bonus would help keep our good, experienced nurses who were already familiar with the doctors, other staff, departments and hospital policies. Such nurses are also often excellent resources for the rest of the staff. This could help prevent some mistakes caused by inexperience or unfamiliarity. In addition, such bonuses could also save money  and increase staff morale by reducing a high turnover rate.

3. Don’t automatically force nurses to get a BSN (bachelor’s degree in nursing)

As I wrote in my March blog “Is it Time for a Two-Track Nursing Education System?”, there is a lack of openings in many BSN programs, not to mention the time stresses and money involved in trying to coordinate full-time 12 hour hospital shifts while  caring for a family and taking classes on a deadline.

Yet there will always a need for excellent bedside nurses who strive to improve their skills, whether or not they decide to pursue a BSN. I believe that it should be a choice, not a requirement, to seek an advanced degree only in nursing.

In the meantime, I believe we should improve basic nursing education, especially by increasing clinical experience and providing mentoring to new graduates.

4. Good nurses deserve to have both conscience and whistle blower rights respected

An April, 2016  Medscape News article “Two Nurses Who Spoke Up, Lost Their Jobs, and Sued”  chronicled the years-long battle of 2 nurses who discovered and reported patient safety problems at their hospitals and lost their jobs as a result of their patient advocacy efforts. Unfortunately, being a good nurse does not automatically provide job security or protection.

Good nurses need both conscience and whistle blower rights protected. Despite rapid changes in historic ethical  and legal principles involving life-termination and abortion issues, most nurses still don’t want to actively participate. Neither do most nurses want to be intimidated from reporting medical incompetence or serious violations of standards involving patient safety.

However, good nurses often find themselves  at risk of harassment or even termination if they refuse to participate in deliberate life-ending decisions or refuse to ignore actual or potential harms to their patients.

Unfortunately, the American Nurses Association and state boards of nursing do not offer much help to nurses in such difficult situations. As the Medscape News article states, even though one nurse cited documents from the American Nurses Association (ANA) code of ethics  which say that nurses have a professional responsibility to protect patient safety:

 “The tricky part—and this is where an experienced attorney is helpful—is understanding the ins and outs of state laws that describe the exceptions to “at will” employment. If an employee reports a patient safety problem and/or is a member of a protected class (older, or a minority), the employer will probably try to prove that the employee was fired for another reason—poor performance, for example. A court will weigh the evidence and decide whether the public policy at issue is more important than upholding the doctrine of at-will employment.”

CONCLUSION

Nurses share a special bond and I am proud to be part of a truly noble profession.  But we need to be able to speak out without fear to insist on the highest standards to improve our healthcare system for both ourselves and especially our patients’ sake.

“Good” News about Dying in America?

This month Medscape, a subscription news service for medical professionals, published the article “Good News about Dying in America” by Dr. George Lundberg. Dr. Lundberg is the former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)  and editor-at-large of Medscape itself as well as a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

But the title “Good News about Dying in America” is ironic because this article is really a homage to the pro-death movement. In the article, Dr. Lundberg approvingly chronicles a recent history of the “right to die” movement in the US including the rise of legalized physician-assisted suicide and his part in it.

Although he writes that he is not looking forward to his own death, he maintains that

To accomplish medical and cultural change, one needs to work at the levels of moral beliefs and ethical standards with professional and individual leadership.Subsequent changes in state and federal laws and regulations may be needed. Economic drivers can move it along. But first, you have to get their attention.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Lundberg congratulates himself for getting this attention started by publishing the anonymous 1988 JAMA article “It’s Over Debbie”  which Lundberg claims is a “factual tale of a caring physician using intravenous morphine to end the horrid pain-wracked life of a young woman with terminal ovarian cancer.”

However, when you read this short article, you read about a doctor in training who, under the cloak of anonymity, writes about being on call at a hospital and awakened in the middle of the night to see a patient he had never met before. He describes “a 20-year-old girl named Debbie was dying of ovarian cancer. She was having unrelenting vomiting apparently as the result of an alcohol drip administered for sedation.” He writes that her condition was“a cruel mockery of her youth and unfulfilled potential” but that Debbie’s only words to him were “Let’s get this over with”. An older, dark-haired woman staying with Debbie was assumed by the young doctor to be her mother.

Then, in the anonymous doctor’s own words, he writes :

The patient was tired and needed rest. I could not give her health, but I could give her rest. I asked the nurse to draw 20 mg of morphine sulfate into a syringe. Enough, I thought, to do the job. I took the syringe into the room and told the two women I was going to give Debbie something that would let her rest and to say good-bye. (Emphasis added)

After giving Debbie the the lethal overdose, the doctor writes:

I waited for the inevitable next effect of depressing the respiratory drive. With clocklike certainty, within four minutes the breathing rate slowed even more, then became irregular, then ceased. The dark-haired woman stood erect and seemed relieved.

Quite a different story from what Dr. Lundberg  proudly portrays as a caring act. Is the deliberate killing of a newly met patient without request, explanation or actual consent by a doctor in training really part of Dr. Lundberg’s  vision of “(t)he cultural change we need now is to allow death to occur when its time has come and to do so with dignity and without undue pain and suffering for the patient to the greatest extent possible?”

Dr. Lundberg writes further on other “breakthrough” moments in medicalized killing after the “It’s Over Debbie” article:

Next was Dr Timothy Quill and his disclosure in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1991 that he prescribed barbiturates at the request of a leukemia patient to allow her to end her life. Then, beginning in 1990, Dr Jack Kevorkian and his suicide machine assisted in the deaths of more than 100 patients; the right message writ large but by a deeply flawed messenger. (emphasis added)

As a medical professional myself, it is horrifying that such influential medical people not only have embraced the concept that it is acceptable and even compassionate to medically kill people, but now promote it.

And there is a jarring apparent lack of empathy and understanding of the challenges serious illness poses to patients and their families at the end of Dr. Lundberg’s article:

hospitals interested in their patient safety statistics might do well to note that much of what is chalked up as deaths related to medical error is actually occurring with the frail elderly, often in critical care units (CCUs). Many of these patients probably should not be in the CCU anyway. Maybe not even in hospitals. …. Help your safety statistics; let the dying die at home. (Emphasis added)

While Dr. Lundberg’s article is appalling to those of us who refuse to kill our patients or help them kill themselves, it is important for all of us to understand that many of our alleged “experts” are leading us into a cultural as well as medical and legal war over human extermination.