My Book Review on “Nurses and Midwives in Nazi Germany: The ‘Euthanasia Programs’”

“Nurses and Midwives in Nazi Germany-The ‘Euthanasia Programs’”
Edited by Susan Benedict and Linda Shields
Routledge Studies in Modern European History. London: Routledge 2014

My book review (abstract) was just published in the Linacre Quarterly journal. Here are some excerpts from my review with all emphasis added only for this blog.

In my nursing education during the 1960s, the Nazi euthanasia program was covered during a class but mainly as a ghastly aberration that was unthinkable today with our now strong ethical principles. As students, we were shocked and horrified by the revelation that nurses were integral to Nazi killing programs. We had little knowledge of the mechanisms that existed to encourage nurses to kill those patients whose lives were deemed “not worth living.”

Unfortunately, it is difficult these days to find information about nurses during the Nazi regime, even on the American Nurses Association website. Thus, the editors of this book do nurses and the public a great service by examining the little-known but crucial role of nurses in the Nazi euthanasia programs. Knowing this history is more important than ever as efforts to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia continue to grow.

The authors explain the history, education, propaganda, and pressures that led so many nurses to participate in the killing of hundreds of thousands of helpless men, women, and children in the 1930s and 1940s; they also propose a model for teaching nursing ethics using the Nazi euthanasia program to encourage nursing students to examine ethical principles and their own values as a nurse in today’s health-care system.

……

The authors start with the rise of the influential eugenics movement in the early twentieth century in countries like the United States where the American Eugenics Society even held conferences on eugenics, such as the 1937 one which included the topic “The Relation of Eugenics to the Field of Nursing.” Eventually, the US eugenics movement fell out of favor after the Nazi euthanasia programs were discovered in World War II.

Even prior to World War II, German professional nursing publications discussed eugenics as “providing a scientific basis for the positive eugenics promoting reproduction among the healthy (often of northern European descent) middle to upper classes and negative eugenics encouraging limited reproduction and forced sterilization of the ‘unfit’ (who were often poor, uneducated, and more recent immigrants) as reasonable”.  Eugenic language was most prevalent in public health and psychiatric nursing texts and in discussions of poverty, immigrants, cleanliness, and social problems.

The editors also point to the influence on Adolf Hitler of the 1920 book titled Approval of the Extermination of Worthless Human Lives by Germans Karl Binding, a jurist, and Alfred Hoche, a psychiatrist. Binding and Hoche noted that there were no legal arguments preventing legalizing the killing of those whose lives were considered not worth living. (Emphasis added)

There was extensive propaganda aimed at increasing the acceptance of euthanasia by the public and health-care providers. Only a few months after Hitler seized power, the first law, affecting people diagnosed with psychiatric conditions, was passed. It mandated sterilization for people with hereditary disorders including alcoholism and epilepsy. Propaganda emphasized wastefulness of providing health care to the chronically mentally ill and the hereditary nature of undesirable physical, mental, and social traits.

Hitler did not propose the systematic killing of psychiatric patients during peacetime because he anticipated the opposition of the churches and the German people. The beginning of World War II muted moral objections and distracted the populace with concerns of conserving resources for the war effort and was the start of state-sponsored euthanasia. The first documented killing occurred in 1939 when Hitler granted the euthanasia request of a father whose son was born blind, missing a leg and part of an arm and who “seemed to be an idiot” .

In 1939, the German Ministry of Justice proposed two new clauses:

1.“Whoever is suffering from an incurable or terminal illness which is a major burden to himself or others can request mercy killing by a doctor, provided it is his express wish and has the approval of a specially empowered doctor.”

2. “The life of a person who, because of incurable mental illness, requires permanent institutionalization and is not able to sustain an independent existence may be prematurely terminated by medical measures in a painless and covert manner” . (Emphasis added)

The program started targeting those in asylums and the disabled in nursing homes for death by lethal gas, starvation, drugs, and neglect. The Jewish population was especially targeted regardless of health.

………

 

In 1933, Adolf Bartels, the deputy leader of the Reich’s medical profession, provided a blueprint of the future of nursing under the Nazis. He emphasized that German nurses in social and medical service had to meet standards in the new Reich that were very different from before. The new Reich not only wanted to look after the sick and weak but also wanted to secure a healthy development of all Germans “if their inherited biological predisposition allows for it” (p. 38). Above all, the new state wanted to secure and promote a genetically sound, valuable race, and, in contrast to the past, “not to expend an exaggerated effort on the care of genetically or racially inferior people”. (Emphasis added)

As a Nazi politician stated, “a nurse is the one who should carry out the will of the State in the health education of the people”. It was not necessary for the majority of nurses to become ardent supporters of the Nazi regime for them to do the will of the Reich. One source noted that the majority of nurses who participated in a secret euthanasia program known as T4 tried to remain good nurses; an estimated 10 percent or fewer were enthusiastic supporters of Nazi practice. But, as in other areas of public life, the Reich absorbed professional nursing organizations, leaving the nursing profession with no means of expressing opposing or dissenting views as well as no organizational support for refusing to participate. (Emphasis added)

……

 

Using midwives, the Reich took various measures both to prevent those regarded as having a “hereditary disease” or who were “racially inferior” from reproducing while increasing the birth rate of those considered valuable and healthy. Thus, the traditional midwife focus on the mother and child was changed to focus on the nation as a whole.

Midwives could initiate proceedings for forced sterilization, and it was now a duty for midwives to report to public health officers “deformed” births and small children with disabilities before their third birthday. Reports received from doctors and midwives were reviewed by medical examiners, and based solely on the reports, the examiners decided whether the child was to be killed or spared.

Parents with such children were told about institutions for children who needed special care that were being established through the country. They were persuaded to admit these children and were assured that the children would receive the best possible care. Parents could refuse but had to sign forms stating their responsibility to supervise and care for their children. The identified children in these institutions were killed by starvation or lethal injection. Parents were told that their children had died from natural causes.

……..

The world was riveted by the 1945 Hadamar trial, the first mass atrocity trial after the Nazi regime was defeated in World War II. This trial came before the infamous Nuremburg trials that included doctors. Hadamar was covered extensively by American media but ignored by the American Journal of Nursing even though nurses were charged.

The trial involved one of the largest and most important killing centers, Hadamar Psychiatric Hospital, one of the six institutions in Germany designated for killing the mentally ill. In 1943, a ward (called an “educational home”) was set up for mixed-race children with Jewish heritage within Hadamar. Completely healthy children were killed with lethal injections. The actual numbers are not known because employees were required to take an oath of secrecy. It is estimated that more than 13,000 patients were killed in 1941 and 1942, even before the ward was set up.

 

In the first Hadamar trial, Head Nurse Irmgard Huber was tried with six others for killing over 400 men, women, and children. Nurse Huber was charged with “obtaining the lethal drugs, being present when some of the fatal injections were given, and being present when the false death certificates were made out”. Two male nurses were charged with administering the lethal injections. All pleaded not guilty. Their defense was that they were powerless and had inadequate knowledge to judge the morality of their actions. All denied accountability. (Emphasis added)

Trial testimony confirmed that the nurses prepared patients for their deaths, directed the entire nursing staff of the institution, and were present at the daily conferences where the falsified death certificates were completed. Duties to patients were limited to so-called kindnesses that consisted of bringing small gifts to pediatric patients and taking care to prevent patients from knowing that they would soon be killed. Head Nurse Huber insisted that she wished to render a last service to these patients and did not want to do them any harm and that she had a clear conscience.

…….

The second Hadamar trial in 1947 did not receive the same attention as the first. Twenty-five members of the Hadamar staff were charged. At this trial, Head Nurse Huber was charged with killing 15,000 German mental patients. All but one of the defendants were found guilty and served sentences ranging from two and a half to five years. The one nurse found not guilty claimed she had feigned pregnancy in order to achieve release from the killing center. (Emphasis added)

In the end, Head Nurse Huber was released from prison in 1952; the others by 1954.

………

The book presents a model used for two innovative teaching programs about this subject, one in Israel and one in Australia, perhaps the most important contribution of this book. The editors believe that the Nazi era should be taught to students, “highlighting the danger of failing to see each individual as a valuable member of human society. And while the heart of nursing and midwifery continues to be care and caring practices, it is fundamental for students to confront this history to develop insights into the causes and social constructs that enabled nurses and midwives to distort the goal of nursing practice and theory to harm and murder patients.”

The results of these programs and the responses by students appear encouraging. The editors hope that by raising these issues, students will be forced to confront their own values and beliefs, sometimes an intensely uncomfortable experience. They also believe students who are exposed to this “dark element of nursing and midwifery history” will be better prepared to face pressure or to report and oppose violations of the trust that is central to any relationship between nurses and patients

 

CONCLUSION

Decades after the Nazi atrocities, we are seeing a resurgence of the same “life unworthy of life” justification that drove Nazi eugenics. We see how this perspective increasingly approves the deliberate termination of some lives as “merciful” and “humane.” There is an emerging, shocking consensus that we can—or perhaps even should—choose to have our own lives terminated when our lives are considered not worth living either by ourselves or by others if we cannot speak for ourselves.

The authors of this book make it clear: we all need to know and understand the past in order not to repeat it. Hopefully, it is not too late to turn the tide of history back toward respect for all life.

 

 

From “Choice” To “No Choice”-Lessons from the Baby Alfie Evans Case

Defending the UK High Court’s order allowing Alder Hay Children’s Hospital to withdraw life support from Baby Alfie Evans and refusing to even allow his parents to take him home, Dr. Ranj Singh of the UK National Health Service was quoted: “This is not the killing of a child – this is redirecting care to make them more comfortable.

Although this callous statement suggests an economic motive, I believe the real problem is a fundamental shift in legal and medical ethics that started in the US in 1976 with the Karen Quinlan case.

Karen was a 21 year old woman whose parents wanted to remove her ventilator after she did not wake up after losing consciousness after a party. The doctors disagreed but the California Supreme Court upheld parents’ decision by stating:

“No compelling interest of the state could compel Karen to endure the unendurable, only to vegetate a few measurable months with no realistic possibility of returning to any semblance of cognitive or sapient state,” then-Chief Justice Richard Hughes wrote. (Emphasis added)

Ironically, Karen did not stop breathing and lived 9 more years with a feeding tube and basic care. But Karen’s case set the stage for the so-called “right to die” movement, “living wills” with removal of feedings and eventually the current assisted suicide/euthanasia movement.

Unfortunately, Baby Alfie and his parents are just the latest casualties of an emerging legal/medical/popular mindset that some people are better off dead. To make matters worse, Baby Alfie’s case-like the similar Baby Charlie Gard case  in the UK last year-are perhaps intended to become examples to discourage other parents (or families) from challenging doctors, hospitals and courts on mandatory withdrawal of treatment decisions.

WHAT HAPPENED TO BABY ALFIE AND COULD THIS HAPPEN HERE IN THE US?

Baby Alfie Evans was born in the UK on May 9, 2016 and apparently healthy. His parents became concerned when he missed the developmental milestones that most babies achieve in their first 7 months and started making “jerking, seizure-life movements”.

In December 2016, he caught a chest infection that caused seizures and was placed on a ventilator at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. Despite the doctors’ dire predictions, Alfie started breathing on his own but caught another chest infection and seizures and went back on a ventilator.

Without having a definitive diagnosis after a year and Baby Alfie in what his doctors called a “semi-vegetative” state, the hospital and doctors wanted to remove his ventilator but Alfie’s parents fought back.

The hospital took the case to the British High Court, stating that “further treatment” for Alfie was “not in his best interests” as well as “unkind and inhumane”.

After many failed court appeals by the parents and even help from Pope Francis and an Italian hospital ready to take the baby, the hospital remained intractable and Alfie was not even allowed to go home with his parents. The ventilator was removed but, contrary to the doctors’ predictions, Alfie continued to breathe on his own for five more days before finally dying.

I watched the tragedy of Baby Alfie from afar with a lot of alarm as well as personal sadness.

I first became aware of medical discrimination against babies with mental disabilities in 1982 with the Baby Doe case. Baby Doe was born with Down Syndrome and a correctable congenital defect in his throat that makes eating food orally impossible but his parents refused surgery on the advice of the obstetrician but against the recommendations of two other doctors who advised immediate surgery. The case went to court but the judge ruled in favor of his parents. The parents also refused all offers of adoption. Baby Doe died from starvation and dehydration while lawyers were still appealing his case. Tragically, Baby Doe did not even receive simple intravenous fluids to keep him alive until his appeals were finished. Many of us who spoke out about Baby Doe’s right to treatment were accused of being “mean” to his parents.

When my daughter Karen was born just after Baby Doe died and also with Down Syndrome as well as a treatable heart defect, I was offered the “choice” of refusing heart surgery for her and “letting” her die. However, even after I insisted on the surgery, I found out that one doctor made her a Do Not Resuscitate behind my back and I was told by others-even other health care professionals like myself-things like “People like you shouldn’t be saddled with a child like that!”

I became so fearful that at one point I slept on the floor under my daughter’s crib during an overnight hospitalization for a test.

It was devastating when Karen died from sudden complications of pneumonia at 5 ½ months but I will never regret fighting for her right to be treated the same as other children with her heart defect.

With Baby Simon Crosier who was born with Trisomy 18 and a heart defect in 2010, his parents begged for help when Simon started deteriorating without knowing that the hospital had made their baby a Do Not Resuscitate and was being given only “comfort feeds” due to a secret futility policy. They had to helplessly watch as Simon died in their arms. The later Simon’s Law bill they helped write to prevent other outrageous secret futility guidelines in hospitals continues to sit in a Missouri legislative committee but hopefully it will get to the House floor this session. (Simon’s Law was passed in Kansas in 2017.)

PARENTAL DECISION-MAKING

The usual standard for parental decision-making in the US has been:

“Medical caretakers have an ethical and legal duty to advocate for the best interests of the child when parental decisions are potentially dangerous to the child’s health, imprudent, neglectful, or abusive. As a general rule, medical caretakers and others should challenge parental decisions when those decisions place the child at significant risk of serious harm. ” (Emphasis added)

But, after Baby Doe starved to death, medical groups fought the proposed Baby Doe Regulations intended to protect such children with disabilities as too restrictive. For example, the American Medical Association endorsed the quality of life standard prior to the Baby Doe case :

“In the making of decisions for the treatment of seriously deformed newborns or persons who are severely deteriorated victims of injury, illness, or advanced age, quality of life is a factor to be considered in determining what is best for the individual.

In caring for defective infants the advice and judgment of the physician should be readily available, but the decision as to whether to treat a severely defective infant and exert maximal efforts to sustain life should be the choice of the parents.” (Emphasis added)

But at a pediatric ethics conference in 1994, I was shocked by a workshop where the  focus was on how to convince parents to refuse or withdraw treatment from seriously disabled or dying children. One speaker/lawyer was even applauded when he suggested that parents who refused to withdraw treatment like feeding tubes from their “vegetative” children were being “cruel” and even “abusive” by not “allowing” their children to die. He also said that judges would be most likely to side with the doctors and/or ethics committee if such cases went to court.

Over the years and unknown to most of the public, many ethicists still refuse to concede this “choice” of a right to continue treatment and instead have developed a new theory that doctors cannot be forced to provide “inappropriate” or “futile” care to patients of any age. This theory evolved into “futile care” policies at hospitals in Houston, Des Moines, California and other areas. Even Catholic hospitals have been involved.

And now, as Baby Simon’s parents and I have unfortunately found, such decisions are sometimes made without even notifying us. This must change with not only legislation like Simon’s Law but also a change of attitude towards these little ones.

CONCLUSION

While there are situations where a family or patient might unreasonably demand truly medically futile or unduly burdensome treatment, the decision to deliberately end the life of a person because he or she is deemed to have little or no “quality of life” should never be made.

The terrible ordeal that Baby Alfie and his parents went through sparked tremendous outrage around the world, especially the callous treatment of his obviously loving parents.

This was inhuman, not “humane” and we must continue the fight to demand truly ethical, caring and nondiscriminatory healthcare, especially for the youngest among us.

 

“Living Wills” to Prevent Spoon-feeding

As so-called “safeguards” for physician-assisted suicide are now starting to be eliminated (See my recent blog “Legal Safeguards, Burdensome Obstacles and Conscience Rights”) , the predicted advance directive (aka “living will”)- already biased against tube feedings-is now on track to include even spoon-feedings.

In an article in Today’s Geriatric Medicine “Judicious Feeding Options at the End of Life” , writer Mike Bassett writes that “In some states, patients can sign directives that allow refusal of feeding when the end of life approaches” and relates the 2013 case of an 82- year-old Alzheimer’s patient whose family filed a lawsuit against a British Columbia nursing home to force the home to stop spoon-feeding her. The lawsuit failed in court but now End of Life Washington , a pro-assisted suicide group, has devised a document called “”My Instructions for Oral Feeding and Drinking”. The document is similar to an advance directive but addresses the signer’s wishes about when to stop oral food and drink in “late-stage” dementia.

Although such a document can be signed, witnessed and notarized, it is not a binding legal document. But this sets the stage for a legal challenge like the British Columbia case but with assisted suicide groups hoping for a different judgment.

The article also interviewed the vice president of constituent services for the Alzheimer’s Association who said that when to stop even oral feeding “should be an important consideration for anyone issuing end-of-life instructions.”

Stephen Drake of the disability advocacy group “Not Dead Yet” made strong points about the dangers of this scheme both in the article and his blog ’End of Life Washington’ Promotes Directive to Prevent Feeding Assistance to Those with Dementia”.

I am not surprised by this new development and here is an excerpt from my September 5, 2016 blog “Ethics and Alzheimer’s-Part Two”:

In 1988 during the Nancy Cruzan case involving a young, non-terminally ill woman in a so-called “persistent vegetative state” whose parents wanted her feeding tube withdrawn so she would die, I was asked if I was going to feed my mother who had Alzheimer’s disease. At the time, my mother had no problems with eating but I knew the real question was about a possible feeding tube later on.

Ironically, I had just written an op-ed on the Cruzan case titled “Feeding is not Extraordinary Care” and I pointed out that if the withdrawal of food and water from people with severe brain injuries was accepted, the pool of potential victims would expand.

I was thinking about people like my mother and, sadly, I was right.

In 1993, just 3 years after Nancy Cruzan died a long 12 days after her feeding tube was removed, a letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the future architects of Obamacare, acknowledged that the actual proof purported to show that the Cruzan case met Missouri law requiring “clear and convincing evidence” that Ms. Cruzan would not want to live in a so-called “vegetative” state rested only on “fairly vague and insubstantial comments to other people”.

However, he noted that:

“…increasingly it will be our collective determination as to what lives are worth living that will decide how incompetent patients are treated. We need to begin to articulate and justify these collective determinations.” (Emphasis added.) Source: The American Journal of Medicine January 1993 Volume 94 p. 115

ALZHEIMER’S AND FEEDING TUBES

When I was asked about whether I would feed my mother with Alzheimer’s, I gave the same answer I gave when my baby daughter Karen with Down Syndrome and a heart defect was critically ill in 1983: Their anticipated deaths must be from their conditions, not from deliberate starvation and dehydration.

In the end, neither one needed a feeding tube. My daughter’s kidneys and other organs shut down and, since food or water would cause worse fluid overload, Karen was not given extra fluid and her heart gave out a short time later. In my mother’s case, she eventually needed to be spoon-fed until she quietly died in her sleep.

As a former hospice and ICU nurse, these scenarios are very familiar to me. Multiple organ failure sometimes occurs with critical illness and dying patients often gradually lose their appetites as they approach death. In those cases, we would give what little these people want or need until death. But for people not dying or near death, we made sure that they had at least basic  medical care and the life essentials of food, clothing and shelter. This is-or used to be-simple common sense.

ALZHEIMER’S AS A FATE WORSE THAN DEATH

The easiest way to get people to accept death by starvation/dehydration is to get them to choose it for themselves even before they have a problem.

Thus, media stories of people and their families suffering tremendously because of Alzheimer’s are very persuasive. People fear becoming an economic and emotional burden on their families. Not surprisingly, many people then willingly check off feeding tubes and other medical treatments in their advance directives.

Position papers like that from the American Geriatrics Society and the Alzheimer’s Association can also paint a dark picture:

The Association asserts that research evidence support no medical benefit from feeding tubes in advance dementia and that feeding tubes may actually cause harm in the advanced state of Alzheimer’s. Additionally, it is ethically permissible to withhold nutrition and hydration artificially administer by  vein or gastric tube when the individual with Alzheimer’s or dementia is in the end stages of the disease and is no longer able to receive food and water by mouth

The presumption is that such a death is peaceful and painless when a person is assumed to be unaware in a “vegetative” or late Alzheimer’s state. However, Bobby Schindler has written an account of the reality  of a prolonged starvation/dehydration death on his sister Terri Schiavo that was hidden from the public.

“JOE’S” CASE

Several years ago, I cared for a man with early stage Alzheimer’s who had a serious pneumonia needing a ventilator for a couple of days. Afterwards, Joe (not his real name) was alert and cooperative but the ventilator tube unexpectedly affected his ability to swallow and speak easily. His family asked about a feeding tube and special swallow therapists to try to retrain his throat muscles so that he could eat and drink safely. That is how an even older friend of mine in the same situation but without Alzheimer’s was successfully treated recently.

However in Joe’s case, a neurologist was first called to evaluate Joe’s mental status. I was there as the doctor asked him questions like “How many fingers am I holding up?” The man answered the questions correctly but the neurologist immediately wrote for nothing by mouth including crucial blood pressure medications. He also then recommended no feeding tube to the family. No swallow therapy was ordered. Joe was never asked about this.

When I questioned the neurologist and pointed out that the man had given correct answers by nods and holding up the correct number of fingers when asked, the neurologist responded by saying that the man did not hold up his fingers “fast enough”!

This is the tragic reality when we judge some lives as not worth living.

 

Response of the National Association of Pro-life Nurses to the recent policy Statement of the American Nurses Association on voluntary holding of Food and Hydration

I am a proud member of the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses (NAPN) myself. There is also a Facebook page for NAPN. Please share this, especially if you know a nurse or someone who is thinking about becoming one.

September 28, 2017

NAPN Response

The National Association of Pro-life Nurses (NAPN) is deeply saddened to learn of the recent position statement of the American Nurses Association (ANA) regarding the withholding of food and hydration as a means of hastening death.

Our organization had hoped that the announcement of the study of the issue would result in a better decision, but based on the ANA revised code of ethics of 2015, it does not come as a surprise. The ANA continues to show its complicity in promoting the culture of death.

The new position claims that “people with decision making capacity have the right to stop eating and drinking as a means of hastening death.” (Termed VSED for “Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking.)

Unfortunately, for us as pro-life nurses, that means that the ANA will expect that nurses will comply with this decision and “honor” this decision, making us complicit with this form of suicide. As with other positions, the ANA will not come to the defense of any nurse holding a conscience objection to this policy. The ANA has effectively given up its previous position, weak as it was, of opposing assisted suicide.

The entire list of recommendations regarding food and water reads:

 “ANA Recommends that:

  • Nurses recognize those situations when nutrition and hydration can no longer benefit a patient, and adhere to clinical standards that include providing nutrition and hydration only to patients for whom it is indicated.
  • Patients with decision-making capacity—or their surrogates, who are relying on the patients’ preference or have knowledge of the person’s values and beliefs—will be supported in decision-making about accepting or refusing clinically appropriate nutrition and hydration at the end of life.
  • Nurses will have adequate and accurate information to understand patients’ cultural, ethnic, and religious beliefs and values regarding nutrition and hydration at the end of life. Patients’ views and beliefs should be respected.
  • Nurses will support patients and surrogates in the decision-making process by providing accurate, precise and understandable information about risks, benefits and alternatives.
  • Decisions about accepting or forgoing nutrition and hydration will be honored, including those decisions about artificially delivered nutrition as well as VSED.
  • People with decision-making capacity have the right to stop eating and drinking as a means of hastening death.” (All emphasis added)

The ANA statement goes on to admit that “There is some consensus (though not universal agreement) that VSED can be an ethical and legal decision”, but in regard to conscience rights, the document only states that “Nurses who have an informed moral objection to either the initiation or withdrawal of nutrition or hydration should communicate their objections whenever possible, to provide safe alternative nursing care for patients and avoid concerns of patient abandonment.” (Emphasis added)

Communication of the nurse’s objection to compliance “whenever possible” leaves the pro-life nurse adherent to the patient’s wishes if there is no other nurse to assume the task of the Grim Reaper. In cases where this is impossible, charges of “abandonment” can be filed resulting in loss of employment and or license and even to lawsuits.

The statement that “providing nutrition and hydration only to patients for whom it is indicated” is problematic in view of the removal of feeding tubes from the severely brain-injured like those said to be in the so-called “persistent vegetative state” and not dying could be starved to death with impunity. (Emphasis added)

The ANA claims to be the “voice of nursing” and “the nation’s only full-serviced professional organization that represents the interests of the nation’s 3.6 million registered nurses.” Yet, in reality, when the ANA last released its membership numbers in 2011, actual membership was less than 7% of registered nurses in this country.

The 2015 Annual Report does cite a 9% increase in membership, but no figures are available.  They certainly do not speak for the numbers of us who do not share their disregard for the lives of the vulnerable.

At the very least, we health care professionals need our conscience rights honored and protected so that we can truly and ethically care for our patients. With positions like that of the ANA, nurses with a true respect for the sanctity of human life and the protection of it in all its forms are placed in a distinct disadvantage and are pressured to abandon our profession of caring.

For further information, please contact the Executive Director, Marianne Linane, at director@nursesforlife.org.

 

 

Outrage: The American Nurses Association Approves Physician Assisted Starvation Suicide

“People with decision-making capacity have the right to stop eating and drinking as a means of hastening death.”

and

“There is an extensive knowledge base to help manage the burden of most physical symptoms (of voluntary stopping of eating and drinking). Symptom control is imperative.”

With these quotes from its’ recent position statement “Nutrition and Hydration at the End of Life”, the American Nurses Association (ANA) effectively gives up the principle of opposing physician assisted suicide.

Last November, I wrote a blog when I was alerted off that the ANA  was drafting a new position statement on food and water. The nurse who alerted me included a site for public comment and I urged others to participate as I did.

Now I am saddened but not really surprised to find that final result was the endorsement of decisions withdrawing food and water, even by mouth, and even if the patient is not imminently dying. The statement also explicitly included people with “severe neurological conditions” and dementia.

As the ANA statement makes clear “Decisions about accepting or forgoing nutrition and hydration will be honored, including those decisions about artificially delivered nutrition as well as VSED.” (Emphasis added) VSED stands for voluntary stopping of eating and drinking and is promoted by Compassion and Choices, the former Hemlock Society, as a legal alternative in states without assisted suicide laws.

Here are the ANA’s recommendations on food and water in its’ entirety from the document:

“ANA Recommends that:

  • Nurses recognize those situations when nutrition and hydration can no longer benefit a patient, and adhere to clinical standards that include providing nutrition and hydration only to patients for whom it is indicated.

  • Patients with decision-making capacity—or their surrogates, who are relying on the patients’ preference or have knowledge of the person’s values and beliefs—will be supported in decision-making about accepting or refusing clinically appropriate nutrition and hydration at the end of life.

  • Nurses will have adequate and accurate information to understand patients’ cultural, ethnic, and religious beliefs and values regarding nutrition and hydration at the end of life. Patients’ views and beliefs should be respected.

  • Nurses will support patients and surrogates in the decision-making process by providing accurate, precise and understandable information about risks, benefits and alternatives.

  • Decisions about accepting or forgoing nutrition and hydration will be honored, including those decisions about artificially delivered nutrition as well as VSED.

  • People with decision-making capacity have the right to stop eating and drinking as a means of hastening death.” (All emphasis added)

The ANA position statement admits “There is some consensus (though not universal agreement) that VSED can be an ethical and legal decision”, but in regard to conscience rights, the document only states that  “Nurses who have an informed moral objection to either the initiation or withdrawal of nutrition or hydration should communicate their objections whenever possible, to provide safe alternative nursing care for patients and avoid concerns of patient abandonment.” (Emphasis added)

DOES THE ANA SPEAK FOR ALL NURSES?

The American Nurses Association claims it is the “voice of nursing” and “the nation’s only full-service professional organization that represents the interests of the nation’s 3.6 million registered nurses.”

However, the ANA does not give out its actual membership numbers and the vast majority of the nurses I have encountered over many decades do not belong to the ANA.

I used to belong to the ANA many years ago and was even active in my state’s chapter, hoping to get support for conscience rights after the Nancy Cruzan feeding tube case. But I  became disillusioned when the organization became more politically active and took controversial positions without notifying members. I eventually joined and became active in the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses.

Medical ethics and law has radically changed in just a few decades and now we are confronting physician assisted suicide and other deliberate death decisions.

At the very least, we health care professionals need our conscience rights honored and protected so that we can truly and ethically care for our patients. Unfortunately, the ANA is hurting rather than helping that objective when it comes to nurses refusing to participate in deliberate death decisions.

 

 

 

Baby Doe and Karen-35 Years Later

When I started nursing school 50 years ago, medical ethics was not a course but rather common sense principles incorporated into our education. There was no controversy about not harming patients, integrity, equality of treatment regardless of status, etc.

So, of course, abortion and euthanasia were unacceptable and even thinkable in those days.

I particularly remember one teacher who told us about the hypothetical situation of a child with Down Syndrome whose parents wanted to let their baby die and how we naturally had to put the interests of the child first. This kind of protection for patients was routine both ethically and legally in those days.

In 1982, I remembered that situation when Baby Doe,  a newborn baby boy with an easily correctable hole between his esophagus (food pipe) and trachea (windpipe), was denied this lifesaving surgery by his parents and a judge because he also had Down Syndrome. Six days later, Baby Doe starved and dehydrated to death while his case was being appealed to the Supreme Court after the Indiana Supreme Court ruled 3-1 against saving him.

My husband, a doctor, and I were appalled when we first read about Baby Doe in the newspaper and my husband suggested that we adopt the baby ourselves and pay for the surgery.

I said yes but with some reluctance since I was already pregnant with our third child and our other children were just 5 and 3. But who else was better situated than us to care for a child with a disability who needed surgery?

In the end, we were too late to save Baby Doe. We found out that Baby Doe’s parents had already rejected the many other families who tried to adopt him.

Five months later, I gave birth to my daughter Karen who also happened to have Down Syndrome and a life-threatening condition that needed surgery.  Karen was born with a complete endocardial cushion defect of the heart  that the cardiologist told us was inoperable. We were told to just take her home and our baby would die within 2 weeks to 2 months.

I was heartbroken and cried for 3 days in the hospital before I finally got mad. My obstetrician never came back to check on me in the hospital even though I had a C-section and I demanded a second opinion on her heart condition in case the cardiologist was biased against children with Down Syndrome.

I insisted on leaving the hospital early with my daughter because I wanted as much time as possible with her and especially because I realized that I needed to research Karen’s heart condition to effectively advocate for her.

I joined the St. Louis Down Syndrome Association which helped me enormously, especially with my research and emotional support. Fortunately, it turned out that the initial prognosis was wrong and the cardiologist told us that Karen’s heart could be fixed with just one open-heart operation at age 6 months.

I was elated until the cardiologist told me that he would support my decision to operate “either way”, meaning I could refuse surgery just like Baby Doe’s parents.

I was furious and told him that the issue of Down Syndrome was irrelevant to Karen’s heart condition and that my daughter must be treated the same as any other child with this condition. I also added that if he were biased against people with Down Syndrome, he could not touch my daughter.

To his credit, this doctor recognized the injustice and because of Karen, he eventually became one of the strongest advocates for babies with Down Syndrome.

Unfortunately, I ran into other medical professionals caring for Karen who were not so accepting. One doctor actually told us that “people like you shouldn’t be saddled with a child like this” and another doctor secretly wrote a DNR (do not resuscitate) order against my instructions at the time. It was then that I realized that my so-called “choice” to save my daughter was really a fight.

Tragically, Karen died of complications of pneumonia when she was just 5 ½ months old and just before her scheduled open-heart surgery. I will always miss her but I am so grateful that I was her mother. Karen changed many lives for the better, especially mine.

I became active in the Down Syndrome Association, promoted President Reagan’s “Baby Doe” rules ,  provided babysitting/respite for many children with various disabilities, and even got a chance to talk to then Surgeon General C. Everett Koop about setting up a national hotline for new parents of children with disabilities to find resources.

But most importantly, I was determined to find out what had happened to medical ethics  over the years since nursing school that resulted in the Baby Doe tragedy and hopefully help reverse the mindset that people with disabilities were “better off dead”.

What I discovered was a landmark 1979 book titled “Principles of Biomedical Ethics” written by Tom Beauchamp PhD, a professor of philosophy, and James Childress PhD, a theologian and also a professor of philosophy. Neither one had a medical degree.

They devised these four principles for medical ethics:

  • Autonomy – The right for an individual to make his or her own choice.
  • Beneficence – The principle of acting with the best interest of the other in mind.
  • Non-maleficence – The principle that “above all, do no harm,” as stated in the Hippocratic Oath.
  • Justice – A concept that emphasizes fairness and equality among individuals.

Although all these principles were considered equal, it wasn’t long before autonomy became the cornerstone principle in ethics and law, ultimately leading not only to Baby Doe but also to the legalization of assisted suicide/euthanasia.

Ironically, all these principles have been used to justify cases like Baby Doe’s as well as assisted suicide/euthanasia.

Beneficence and non-maleficence have become a ways to see death as an actual blessing to real, perceived or potential suffering. Ominously, the justice principle has become the rationale for rationing under the guise of supposedly not wasting scarce healthcare resources .

CONCLUSION

35 years after Baby Doe, some things like medical technologies and education for people with disabilities are better but many things like assisted suicide/euthanasia have pushed the ethics of death even farther and are a threat to all of us and our loved ones.

The Baby Doe tragedy should have been a fire alarm for the evils we see today but it is never too late or impossible to try to promote a culture of respect for all lives.

The Slippery Slope-Tactics in the Assisted Suicide Movement

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

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

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

TODAY’S SLIPPERY SLOPE TACTICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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

Ethics and Alzheimer’s-Part Two: Feeding Tubes

In 1988 during the Nancy Cruzan case involving a young, non-terminally ill woman in a so-called “persistent vegetative state” whose parents wanted her feeding tube withdrawn so she would die, I was asked if I was going to feed my mother who had Alzheimer’s disease. At the time, my mother had no problems with eating but I knew the real question was about a possible feeding tube later on.

Ironically, I had just written an  op-ed on the Cruzan case titled “Feeding is not Extraordinary Care  and I pointed out that if the withdrawal of food and water from people with severe brain injuries was accepted, the pool of potential victims would expand.

I was thinking about people like my mother and, sadly, I was right.

In 1993, just 3 years after Nancy Cruzan died a long 12 days after her feeding tube was removed, a letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the future architects of Obamacare, acknowledged that the actual proof purported to show that the Cruzan case met Missouri law requiring “clear and convincing evidence” that Ms. Cruzan would not want to live in a so-called “vegetative” state rested only on “fairly vague and insubstantial comments to other people”.

However, he noted that

“…increasingly it will be our collective determination as to what lives are worth living that will decide how incompetent patients are treated. We need to begin to articulate and justify these collective determinations.” (Emphasis added.) Source: The American Journal of Medicine January 1993 Volume 94 p. 115

ALZHEIMER’S AND FEEDING TUBES

When I was asked about whether I would feed my mother with Alzheimer’s, I gave the same answer I gave when my baby daughter Karen with Down Syndrome and a heart defect was critically ill in 1983: Their anticipated deaths must be from their conditions, not from deliberate starvation and dehydration.

In the end, neither one needed a feeding tube. My daughter’s kidneys and other organs shut down and, since food or water would cause worse fluid overload, Karen was not given extra fluid and her heart gave out a short time later. In my mother’s case, she eventually needed to be spoon-fed until she quietly died in her sleep.

As a former hospice and ICU nurse, these scenarios are very familiar to me. Multiple organ failure sometimes occurs with critical illness and dying patients often gradually lose their appetites as they approach death. In those cases, we would give what little these people want or need until death. But for people not dying or near death, we made sure that they had at least basic  medical care and the life essentials of food, clothing and shelter. This is-or used to be-simple common sense.

ALZHEIMER’S AS A FATE WORSE THAN DEATH

The easiest way to get people to accept death by starvation/dehydration is to get them to choose it for themselves even before they have a problem.

Thus, media stories of people and their families suffering tremendously because of Alzheimer’s are very persuasive. People fear becoming an economic and emotional burden on their families. Not surprisingly, many people then willingly check off feeding tubes and other medical treatments in their advance directives.

Position papers like that from the American Geriatrics Society and the Alzheimer’s Association can also paint a dark picture:

The Association asserts that research evidence support no medical benefit from feeding tubes in advance dementia and that feeding tubes may actually cause harm in the advanced state of Alzheimer’s. Additionally, it is ethically permissible to withhold nutrition and hydration artificially administer by  vein or gastric tube when the individual with Alzheimer’s or dementia is in the end stages of the disease and is no longer able to receive food and water by mouth

The presumption is that such a death is peaceful and painless when a person is assumed to be unaware in a “vegetative” or late Alzheimer’s state. However, Bobby Schindler has written an account of the reality  of a prolonged starvation/dehydration death on his sister Terri Schiavo that was hidden from the public.

“JOE’S” CASE

Several years ago, I cared for a man with early stage Alzheimer’s who had a serious pneumonia needing a ventilator for a couple of days. Afterwards, Joe (not his real name) was alert and cooperative but the ventilator tube unexpectedly affected his ability to swallow and speak easily. His family asked about a feeding tube and special swallow therapists to try to retrain his throat muscles so that he could eat and drink safely. That is how an even older friend of mine in the same situation but without Alzheimer’s was successfully treated recently.

However in Joe’s case, a neurologist was first called to evaluate Joe’s mental status. I was there as the doctor asked him questions like “How many fingers am I holding up?” The man answered the questions correctly but the neurologist immediately wrote for nothing by mouth including crucial blood pressure medications. He also then recommended no feeding tube to the family. No swallow therapy was ordered. Joe was never asked about this.

When I questioned the neurologist and pointed out that the man had given correct answers by nods and holding up the correct number of fingers when asked, the neurologist responded by saying that the man did not hold up his fingers “fast enough”!

This is the tragic reality when we judge some lives as not worth living.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

One of my oldest friends, “Dr. Mary” (not her real name), is a pro-life doctor who asked me years ago to be her power of attorney for health care if she became incapacitated. She had never married and had no close relatives. She told me what she wanted, especially in light of the Nancy Cruzan case, and signed an advance directive available through our archdiocese.

My friend now has presumed Alzheimer’s dementia and she is now in the later stages. She can still feed herself, albeit somewhat messily. She no longer remembers my name or her friends’ names but she is delighted when we come.

At almost 90 and with inevitable death approaching, she now has a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order but her nursing home is well aware that this does not mean any reduction in care or attention.

Along with her other friends who visit and help, our goal now is to make Dr. Mary as happy and safe as possible. If she needs spoon-feeding, she will get it. All of us hope that Dr. Mary will never need a feeding tube but she will not be denied one if necessary.

But best of all, Dr. Mary will continue to receive our love until her Lord calls her home.

LIVING WITH “LIVING WILLS”

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

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

Unknown to us, all this began to change after Louis Kutner, a Chicago lawyer, wrote an article in the Indiana Law Journal titled Due Process of Euthanasia: The Living Will, A Proposal” in 1969. (emphasis added). By 1970, The Euthanasia Society of America (later renamed the Society for the Right to Die) distributed 60,000 living wills. In 1976, California passed the nation’s first “living will” law. Now, there are proposals to eventually include even physician-assisted suicide in “living wills”.

I use the common term “living will” to represent the wide variety of end of life documents that have evolved since the original “living will”, including the newest but problematic one called POLST (physician orders for life-sustaining treatment).

I wrote a 2001 article “Of Living Wills and Butterfly Ballots”   because I was concerned that many people were signing such documents with little knowledge of the history and problems with such documents that I witnessed as a nurse and ethics committee member. However, with the crucial help of a sympathetic media, court cases involving seriously brain-injured people like Terri Schiavo and government mandates such as the 1990 Patient Self-Determination Act have resulted in the heavy promotion of “living wills” as simple, worry-free documents. Now the federal government is set to begin paying healthcare providers for talking to all Medicare beneficiaries about such documents.

CAN “LIVING WILLS” BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH?

Recently, I talked to lawyers who expressed confusion and concern over the “living wills” they were asked to draw up. In addition, Medscape, a subscription website for medical professionals, and the American Medical News have published recent articles such as “Advance Directives May Be Hazardous to Your Health”  and “Clearing Up Confusion on Advance Directives”. The last article even warns

“misinterpretations of end-of-life documents too often result in lost lives or unwanted care” such as when “physicians incorrectly assume that DNR means not to treat a patient who is critically ill”.

When even doctors and lawyers are confused, there is a big problem. In the real world of medicine, I even heard some doctors say that if in doubt, it might be legally safer not to treat than to treat someone with a “living will” in an emergency because of lawsuits where a patient with a “living will” survived or had serious impairments.

SHOULD I EVEN HAVE A “LIVING WILL”?

When “living wills” first came out, I felt I was safer not to have one to make sure I received treatment. Later, I changed my mind. I felt it was safer to designate someone I trusted with the legal authority to make decisions if I was unable to speak for myself rather than just leave it to my family members, some of whom vigorously disagreed with my stance for feeding brain-injured people like Terri Schiavo.

I never tell people that they must or must not have a “living will” but everyone should be fully informed. I do encourage people to check out information sites like the Pro-Life Healthcare Alliance’s “Informed-A Guide to Critical Medical Decisions”  which has sections explaining ventilators, CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), feeding tubes, misuse of opioids and sedatives as well as end of life considerations.

There are also several informative and protective “living will” documents from organizations like the Patients Rights Council and the American Life League. The National Right to Life Committee even has such documents online and specific to state laws.

SOME POINTS TO CONSIDER BEFORE SIGNING A “LIVING WILL” STYLE DOCUMENT

Here are some of my personal recommendations as a nurse before signing a standard “living will” or even a protective one.

1. Make sure the document is as short as possible, simple to understand and that the presumption for life is expressly stated so that if doctors are in doubt about your wishes, they should treat you.

What most people do not know is that “living will” style documents often go unread by doctors and nurses until a critical situation develops and time is of the essence. Even worse, some doctors and nurses still assume or misinterpret “living wills” as meaning the patient does not want treatment, especially if the patient is older or disabled.

2. Avoid vague terms like “significant recovery” and “terminal event” that have no objective medical standard and can easily be misinterpreted.

I’ve seen patients who have just had a stroke or head injury incorrectly judged “terminal” or “incurable by doctors. Such patients often get better with time and treatment. And, of course, any treatment that is medically futile or excessively burdensome to the patient can be ethically withdrawn later. I add the emphasis because now futility and burden are too often assumed to mean an inadequate “quality of life” or economic burden to the family or society.

3. Designate one person you trust to make your medical decisions with a backup person or persons.

Sometimes when only one person is the designated decision maker, he or she may be unavailable or incapacitated so a backup is important especially in a critical situation.

4. Consider not checking off particular treatments or conditions to be automatically refused.

Personally, I wanted a positive “living will” that only designates my decision maker and his/her right to make decisions about my care rather than signing a “living will” to refuse future treatment or set possible future conditions where I would want treatment stopped or withheld. Instead, I want all current options, risks and benefits of treatment fully explained to my decision maker based on my current condition.

5. Many “living wills” contain a section on pain with such sentences such as “I want my doctor to give me enough pain medicine to relieve my pain”. You might consider adding a phrase like “without hastening my death.”

I have seen unnecessarily high doses of pain medicine deliberately given to make a patient unconscious while food and water were stopped. Often, this was called “comfort care” instead of terminal/palliative sedation  but the result was hastening or causing death by dehydration and/or suppression of breathing.

Everyone wants and deserves adequate pain control at the end of life. Carefully increasing doses of pain medication and other measures work in virtually any situation and family members should advocate this for their loved ones.

CONCLUSION

There may be no perfect “living will” but as a former hospice nurse and family caregiver myself, I believe that dying people have a right to a good death with as few medical interventions as possible for comfort without deliberately hastening or causing death. The time before death may be short or long but I believe that people have the right to die at their own natural pace.

Death is not something to get over with as soon as possible. As some people with terminal illness have told me, they hated being treated as if they were already dead when they were still alive. They wanted to hear jokes, be with family and friends, go to church, etc. And since hearing is thought to be the last sense to go, I interacted with my dying patients in comas just as I did with my conscious patients.

The process of coming to terms with  death can be difficult at times but it also can be a meaningful time to review a life with all its joys and sorrows as well as a time for family and friends to show love, support and even healing.

The “Miracle” of Dying (in hospice without food and water)

Recently, a fellow nurse sent me an article she found disturbing titled “The miracle of dying” from the Los Angeles archdiocesan newspaper.

The article is ostensibly about the laudable goal of promoting emotional and spiritual healing for a dying person with comprehensive hospice and palliative care when cure is not possible.

Unfortunately, the article begins with the story told by Diane, dean of nursing at a Catholic university in California, about her father’s death. Diane’s frail, 99 year old father living in a Florida assisted living facility with no apparent life-threatening illness called her to say “I’ve outlived my usefulness. I’m ready to go”. When he decided to quit eating and drinking, Diane arranged for hospice care.

According to the article, it wasn’t long before the hospice nurse called back, saying it would take about 48 hours for her father to die and Diane took a flight to Florida to be there when he died.  The obvious impression left is that her father’s wish to stop eating and drinking was granted by the hospice.

Was Diane’s father evaluated physically and psychologically?  I have seen many elderly people who also felt their lives were useless successfully treated for depression as well as elderly people who had physical problems with eating regain their health with professional help. Why would we just send them to a hospice without exploring other options?

When I worked in hospice years ago, we would never have approved deliberate starvation and dehydration even at the patient’s request. We followed the trusted hospice philosophy that we neither hasten nor prolong the dying process. Unfortunately, we are seeing that ethical standard eroding to just honoring a patient’s “choice” to die. Ominously, state reports in Oregon, the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide show that over 90% of reported physician-assisted suicide victims were enrolled in hospice.

Terminal Sedation

The rest of the article discusses death and California’s new physician-assisted suicide law with an ethicist and a doctor connected with Catholic health care institutions. While neither man supports the new California assisted suicide law, the comments by Roberto Dell’Oro, director of Loyola Marymount University’s Bioethics Institute are particularly alarming. Note this section from the article:

“For years, doctors have performed what’s known as “terminal sedation,” not to end somebody’s life but to make their patients more comfortable. Estimates of very seriously ill patients being terminally sedated have ranged from 2 to more than 50 percent. But the subject is rarely brought up in public.

One of the pillars it rests on goes back to the “double-effect” rule attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, which justifies killing in times of war and for self-defense.

Regarding end-of-life matters, the principle posits that even when there’s a foreseeable bad outcome (death), it is morally acceptable if the intentional good outcome (relief of pain) outweighs it.

‘It’s a matter of stopping feeding and increasing pain medication that leaves you to die,’ explained Dell’Oro. ‘It’s not the practice of assisted suicide. Because the motivation, the intentionality of the physician remains the alleviation of pain, not the killing of the patient. That’s the fundamental difference.’ (emphasis added)

Unfortunately, this ethicist’s quote echoes Jack Kevorkian’s defense that he was just “relieving suffering” not mercy-killing his victims when he hooked them up to his death machine. There is a big difference between adequately treating pain even if that would diminish a person’s consciousness and deliberately rendering a person unconscious until death while withholding food and water. And now we have ethicists supporting terminal sedation for even “intractable emotional or spiritual anguish”.

COMPASSION AND CHOICES

Compassion and Choices is the pro-assisted suicide organization formerly known as The Hemlock Society and made famous by the Brittany Maynard physician-assisted suicide case. On its’ website, Compassion and Choices describes voluntary stopping of eating and drinking (VSED) and terminal sedation as good end of life options:

Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking – When patients die naturally of chronic diseases, such as cancer, bodily changes take away their appetite, and they stop eating before they die. Some people decide to speed up the dying process by voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED), which also relieves some of the symptoms common to dying. If a patient is already close to death, VSED usually leads to death in one to three weeks. Many people have used this method successfully….C&C believes hospice care is essential during VSED.” (Emphasis added)

In the case of terminal sedation which they call “palliative sedation”, it is described as:

Some dying patients experience so much pain or such unmanageable symptoms they cannot get relief from medications unless the dose is high enough to make them unconscious. Palliative sedation provides enough medication to keep the person unconscious and continuously pain and symptom-free. All nutrients and fluids are stopped, and the person usually dies within a few days. Patients using palliative sedation should be monitored around the clock to be sure the sedation is adequate. Intensive monitoring can be done at home under hospice care. (Emphasis added)

Of course, Compassion and Choices is working to legalize physician-assisted suicide throughout the US but, in the meantime, note that it endorses VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) and terminal sedation in hospice as a legal alternative.

When I was a hospice nurse in the mid-1990s, terminal sedation and withholding food and water were unthinkable.  We worked hard to make sure our terminally ill patients and their families had physical, emotional and spiritual support. It was gratifying to hear our patients and families tell us how meaningful and even healing the experience was. I even saw some dying people unexpectedly linger until an issue was resolved, a loved one came to the bedside or even until the family was ready.

When we try to just get death over with as soon as possible, we are really abandoning our dying patients and their families at  one of the most important and momentous events in their lives. We need to respect death not accelerate it.