Defending Physician-assisted Suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT HAPPENS TO THE UNUSED LETHAL OVERDOSE?

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

 

Another Threat to Conscience Rights for Medical Professionals

2012 New York Times:  “Instead of attempting to legalize physician-assisted suicide, we should focus our energies on what really matters: improving care for the dying — ensuring that all patients can openly talk with their physicians and families about their wishes and have access to high-quality palliative or hospice care before they suffer needless medical procedures. The appeal of physician-assisted suicide is based on a fantasy. The real goal should be a good death for all dying patients.” (Emphasis added)

2016, Journal of the American Medical Association: “CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are increasingly being legalized, remain relatively rare, and primarily involve patients with cancer. Existing data do not indicate widespread abuse of these practices. (Emphasis added)

The writer of these conflicting views on assisted suicide is Ezekiel J. Emanuel, M.D., PhD., a very influential doctor who is Chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the architects of Obamacare. He is considered an expert on medical ethics who speaks and writes prolifically for both medical journals and general media outlets.

NO CONSCIENCE RIGHTS?

Unfortunately, Dr. Emmanuel is now opposing conscience rights for those of us who object to participating in deliberate death decisions like abortion and assisted suicide.

In his April, 2017 New England Journal of Medicine article “Physicians, Not Conscripts — Conscientious Objection in Health Care” , Dr. Emanuel writes:

“Health care professionals who conscientiously object to professionally  contested  interventions  may  avoid  participating  in them directly, but, as with military conscientious objectors, who are required to perform alternative service, they cannot completely absent themselves from providing  these  servicesConscientious  objection  still  requires  conveying  accurate  information  and  providing  timely  referrals to ensure patients receive care.

….

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

……

Although the political process may continue unabated, and courts may deem conscience clauses to be legal, it is incumbent on professional societies to affirm professional role morality and authoritatively articulate the professional ethical standards to which all licensed health care professionals must adhere. Laws may allow physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care workers to deny patients treatment or to refuse to care for particular populations, but professional medical associations should insist that doing so is unethical.”

(All emphasis added)

 

CONCLUSION

Please reread that last sentence “Laws may allow physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care workers to deny patients treatment or to refuse to care for particular populations, but professional medical associations should insist that doing so is unethical.

Some may think this cannot happen in the U.S. or that actions like assisted suicide only occur privately in a patient’s home but, as I wrote in my last blog “Outrage: The American Nurses Association Approves Physician Assisted Starvation Suicide”, the American Nurses Association recently published a position statement “Nutrition and Hydration at the End of Life” that states:

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

and

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

(All emphasis added)

In reality, nurses face an even greater risk than doctors who refuse to participate or refer patients making death decisions.

After assisted suicide was legalized in Oregon, the Oregon Nurses Association quickly issued guidelines for nurses that included these two points for “Nurses Who Choose Not to Be Involved”: “You may not:”

  • Subject your patients or their families to unwarranted, judgmental comments or actions because of their decision to continue to provide care to a patient who has chosen assisted suicide.

  • Abandon or refuse to provide comfort and safety measures to the patient.”  (All emphasis added)

Abandonment is a very big deal in nursing. To be accused of abandoning a patient can result in termination, loss of license or even a lawsuit.

But even if you are not a health care professional, you should be concerned about ethical health care professionals being forced out of health care by taking Dr. Emmanuel’s advice that there are only “two choices: select an area of medicine, such as radiology, that will not put them in situations that conflict with their personal morality or, if there is no such area, leave the profession. ”

Can any of us really trust a health care system that only accepts medical professionals who are just as willing to help end our lives as they are to  care for us?

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.

My Oral Submission to the New Zealand Health Committee Regarding Physician-assisted Suicide on March 5, 2017

As a nurse and legal consultant in the USA with 47 years of experience in the most challenging areas of medicine such as critical care, oncology, burn unit and hospice, I have seen many of the most challenging cases in medicine. I also have professional and personal experience with suicidal people, including my own 30 year old daughter Marie who died using an assisted suicide technique that she found searching the internet and after a 16 year struggle with drug addiction. I have worked with many suicidal people, including some with terminal illness. To my knowledge, my daughter was the only one lost to suicide.

I have previously submitted written testimony about physician-assisted suicide and I would like to follow up with two crucial issues that I feel must be addressed.

First I will discuss how physician-assisted suicide empowers doctors, not patients. Second, I’ll share a nurse’s perspective.

1. Physician-assisted suicide empowers doctors, not patients.

Society has long insisted that health care professionals adhere to the highest standards of ethics as a form of protection for society. The vulnerability of a sick person and the inability of society to monitor every health care decision or action are powerful motivators to enforce such standards.

However in physician-assisted suicide, unlike any other medical intervention, any licensed doctor of any experience or specialty is granted immunity from “civil or criminal liability or professional disciplinary action for participating in good faith compliance “with an assisted suicide law[1].  The doctor or doctors involved are the ones to decide whether or not the patient is eligible, not the patient.

All the doctor is required to do is fill out a prescription and state forms. The usual standards for caring for a suicidal person including  intensive management[2]  are changed in physician-assisted suicide to “If, in the opinion of the attending physician or the consulting physician, a patient may be suffering from a psychiatric or psychological disorder or depression causing impaired judgment, either physician shall refer the patient for counseling.”[3] (Emphasis added). Not surprisingly, only 3.8% of people using physician-assisted suicide in Oregon were referred for psychiatric evaluation in 2016[4].

This is dangerous medical discrimination in treatment standards for suicidal people.

In addition, since the doctor is not required to be present or examine the patient after death, any complications or other problems must be self-reported by the doctor to the state. Even the death certificate must be falsified to report the death as from natural causes rather than the lethal overdose.[5]  This violates the standards set by the Centers for Disease Control which require accuracy because, among other issues, “The death certificate is the source for State and national mortality and is used to determine which medical conditions receive research and development funding, to set public health goals, and to measure health status at local, State, national, and international levels.”[6]

The  immunity protections and the secrecy of even the minimal self-reporting standards in US assisted suicide laws eliminates the possibility of future potential lawsuits or prosecutions and keeps the myth of “no problems, no abuses” alive.

2. A Nurse’s Perspective

The dangers of the legalization of physician-assisted suicide are especially acute for us nurses. Unlike doctors, we nurses cannot refuse to care for a patient in a situation like assisted suicide unless another willing nurse can be found which can be impossible. If we do refuse, that is considered abandonment and cause for discipline and even termination. And we are necessarily involved when the assisted suicide act occurs in home health, hospice or health care facility even though the prescribing doctor is not required to be there.

And these deaths are not guaranteed quick, painless or even possible in some circumstances. As a new December 21, 2016 Kaiser Health News article revealed, doctors are trying new drugs because the old drugs are becoming too expensive and taking too long to work. Unfortunately, some new alternative drugs have “turned out to be too harsh, burning patients’ mouths and throats, causing some to scream in pain”.[7]

Like most nurses, I have worked over the years with a variety of doctors who are at various points on the spectrum on competency and integrity.

Years ago, I was threatened with termination after I refused to increase a morphine drip “until he stops breathing” on a man who would not stop breathing after his ventilator was removed and no other nurse was available to take over the patient. The patient was presumed to have had a stroke when he did not wake up from sedation after 24 hours. I reported the situation up the chain of command at my hospital but no one supported me. I loved my profession and at that time, I was the sole support of three young children but I knew that nothing was worth betraying the trust of my patients.

I escaped termination that time but I refused to back down. Soon after, every nurse on a medical division of nurses refused to give an overdose to a patient and told the doctor that he would have to give it himself. The doctor cancelled the order.

Legalizing physician-assisted suicide can force nurses like us to leave healthcare, leaving no reliable safe haven for people who don’t want to end their lives.

Does anyone really want to entrust our healthcare system just to people who are comfortable with ending lives? I don’t.

FOOTNOTES

[1] “Oregon Revised Statute. 127.885s.01. Online at: https://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Pages/ors.aspx

2 “Evaluation and Treatment of the Suicidal Patient” . American Family Physician. Online at http://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/0315/p602.html

3 “Evaluation and Treatment of the Suicidal Patient” .American Family Physician. Online at http://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/0315/p602.html

4 “Oregon Death with Dignity Act Date Summary” .Online at https://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Documents/year19.pdf

5 : “Washington state “Death with Dignity Act”. Online at http://www.doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/IllnessandDisease/DeathwithDignityAct/DeathCertificateInstructions

6 CDC Medical Examiners’ and Coroners’ Handbook on Death Registration and Fetal Death Reporting”. CDC. Online at https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/misc/hb_me.pdf

7 “Docs  In Northwest Tweak Aid-In-Dying Drugs To Prevent Prolonged Deaths” by JoNel Aleccia. Kaiser Health News. February 21, 2017. Online at http://khn.org/news/docs-in-northwest-tweak-aid-in-dying-drugs-to-prevent-prolonged-deaths/

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

Amid conflicting reports about whether or not the American Medical Association was going to consider a position of neutrality on physician assisted suicide, I was informed that the AMA’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs was collecting data, position statements, etc. for consideration of assisted suicide and other topics before the June AMA Annual meeting. The deadline for submissions was February 15.

The following is my submission titled “Neutrality on physician assisted suicide also hurts nurses”

Dear AMA,

I have been a registered nurse since 1969. After working in critical care, hospice, home health, oncology, dialysis and other specialties for 45 years, I am currently working as a legal nurse consultant and volunteer as well as spokesperson for the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses. Over the years, I have cared for many suicidal people as well as people who attempt suicide.

I have served on medical and nursing ethics committees, served on disability and nursing boards. I have written and spoken on medical ethics-especially end of life issues-since 1984.

The dangers of the legalization of physician-assisted suicide are especially acute for us nurses. Unlike doctors, we nurses cannot refuse to care for a patient  in a situation like assisted suicide unless another willing nurse can be found which can be impossible. If we do refuse, that is considered abandonment and cause for discipline and even termination. And we are necessarily involved when the assisted suicide act occurs in home health, hospice or health care facility even though the doctor is not required to be there.

marievalko

Marievalko Picture of Marie Valko 1979-2009

As a nurse and the mother of a suicide victim (see picture above), I am alarmed by reports that the AMA is considering a position of neutrality on physician-assisted suicide. I beg you to uphold the legal and ethical standard that medical professionals must not kill their patients or help them kill themselves. Suicide is a tragedy to be prevented if possible, not a civil right.

MY DAUGHTER KILLED HERSELF USING AN ASSISTED SUICIDE TECHNIQUE

In 2009, I lost a beautiful, physically well 30-year-old daughter, Marie, to suicide after a 16-year battle with substance abuse and other issues. Her suicide was like an atom bomb dropped on our family, friends and even her therapists.

Despite all of our efforts to save her, my Marie told me that she learned how to kill herself from visiting suicide/assisted suicide websites and reading Derek Humphry’s book Final Exit. The medical examiner called Marie’s suicide technique “textbook final exit” but her death was neither dignified nor peaceful.

Marie was not mere collateral damage in the controversy over physician-assisted suicide. She was a victim of the physician-assisted suicide movement, seduced by the rhetoric of a painless exit from what she believed was a hopeless life of suffering.

SUICIDE CONTAGION

Adding to our family’s pain, at least two people close to Marie became suicidal not long after her suicide. Luckily, these two young people received help and were saved, but suicide contagion, better known as “copycat suicide”, is a well-documented phenomenon. Often media coverage or publicity around one death encourages other vulnerable people to commit suicide in the same way.

STUDY SHOWS LEGALIZING PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE IS ASSOCIATED WITH AN INCREASE RATE OF TOTAL SUICIDES

A 2015 article in the Southern Medical Journal titled “How Does Legalization of Physician-Assisted Suicide Affect Rates of Suicide?” came to these conclusions:

“Legalizing PAS has been associated with an increased rate of total suicides relative to other states and no decrease in nonassisted suicides. This suggests either that PAS does not inhibit (nor acts as an alternative to) nonassisted suicide, or that it acts in this way in some individuals but is associated with an increased inclination to suicide in other individuals.”

THE HEALTH AND ECONOMIC COSTS OF SUICIDE

My Marie was one of the almost 37,000 reported US suicides in 2009. In contrast, only about 800 assisted-suicide deaths have been reported in the past 16 years in Oregon, the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for Americans in 2012, with “More than 1 million people reported making a suicide attempt in the past year” and “More than 2 million adults reported thinking about suicide in the past year.” The CDC estimates that suicide “costs society approximately $34.6 billion a year in combined medical and work loss costs”, not to mention the emotional toll on families.

Obviously our real health-care crisis here is a staggering and increasing rate of suicides, not the lack of enough assisted suicides.

BRITTANY MAYNARD

There was a media frenzy in October 2014 when Brittany Maynard, a young newlywed woman with a brain tumor, announced plans to commit physician-assisted suicide on November 1 and raise money to have physician-assisted suicide legalized in all US states. There was an immediate and unprecedented media frenzy surrounding Ms. Maynard’s tragic story that routinely portrayed her pending assisted suicide as “heroic” and even counting down the days to her suicide. Personally, I thought this looked like a crowd on the street shouting for a suicidal person on a window ledge to jump.

In the end, Brittany hesitated for a day before she went through with her pledge to take the lethal overdose.

Now, assisted suicide supporters even deny that physician-assisted suicide is suicide, insisting that media stories use euphemisms like “aid-in-dying” and “death with dignity” in cases like Ms. Maynard’s to make assisted suicide more palatable to the public. However, this defies common sense when the definition of suicide is the intentional taking of one’s own life.

PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE AND MEDICAL DISCRIMINATION

I have been a registered nurse for 47 years, working in intensive care, oncology, hospice and home health among other specialties. Personally and professionally, I have cared for many people who attempt or consider killing themselves.

Some of these people were old, chronically ill or had disabilities. Some were young and physically healthy. A few were terminally ill. I cared for all of them to the best of my ability without discrimination as to their condition, age, socioeconomic status, race or gender. I will do anything to help my patients — except kill them or help them kill themselves.

Suicide prevention and treatment works, and the standards must not be changed just because some people insist their desire for physician-assisted suicide is rational and even a civil right.

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!

 

 

Caring for Difficult People

As nurses, we have the privilege to get to know and help all kinds of people we might never have had a chance to meet otherwise on a very personal basis. Sometimes we care for them during some of the most stressful times in their lives.

Doctors and nurses are supposed to treat everyone according to the highest medical and ethical standards without regard to race, gender, socioeconomic status, nationality, etc. but, like everyone else, we can find some individuals particularly difficult.

One incident that changed my perspective on caring for difficult people happened many years ago when I was a young nurse.

I used to pride myself on keeping my cool in any tense situation until the day I almost lost it with a difficult patient.

A young man with drug addiction was admitted to our floor and he incessantly and loudly demanded more pain medication from all his doctors and nurses. No one could reason with him.

Then one day, he came up to me and screamed in my face. I couldn’t calm him and, despite my best intentions, I could feel my anger rise and my face turn red.

Suddenly, an unexpected thought flashed through my mind: “This is the face of Jesus!” At that moment, I was looking directly into this young man’s eyes and I felt a wave of empathy.

Although I did not say a word, the young man’s face suddenly changed and he stepped back almost as if he had been struck. He stopped yelling and started talking. In the end, he actually apologized for his behavior and admitted that he needed help. He was never verbally abusive to any of us after that.

I was stunned by this remarkable change and it changed my perspective. As I tell younger nurses now, it is usually easy to care for pleasant people but it is the difficult ones that need us the most and who often can teach us how to really respect every life.

Perhaps there is a lesson here not just for nurses but for everyone in this current climate of anger and division in our society: When we respect and recognize the intrinsic value in every human being, we really do have a chance to achieve a more just and peaceful society.

Canada and Assisted Suicide for Psychiatric Patients

My first husband and the father of my children was a caring man and dedicated psychiatrist who himself eventually became disabled by mental illness. Early in our marriage, I helped him write his medical journal articles and we planned to eventually include me in his psychiatric practice to work with the families of his patients. As a nurse, I always believed that families were ideally the best support system for patients and our goal was to improve the care and outcomes of people with mental illness.

Tragically, my husband’s mental illness worsened despite intensive treatment. He ultimately abandoned our family and lived the next 26 years in and out of hospitals and assisted living places before he died of natural causes in 2014.

Thus I have a unique perspective on the legal, medical and personal aspects of mental illness.

At one point, a family member sympathetically suggested that it might be better for everyone if he committed suicide. I was horrified. You don’t give up on sick people and I told this person that I would do anything in my power to stop him if he tried to kill himself. Suicide would be the ultimate tragedy.

Canada and Its New Assisted Suicide Law

In February 2015, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the Carter v. Canada case to legalize physician-assisted suicide for competent, consenting adults whose suffering is due to a “grievous and irremediable” medical condition and gave Parliament a year to develop a regulatory regime along these “parameters.”

The Parliamentary Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted “Dying” suggested that the “grievous and irremediable” criterion includes nonterminal medical conditions, including psychiatric disorders.

The federal government’s Bill C-14, on the other hand, defined “grievous and irremediable” as an “advanced state of irreversible decline in capabilities” in a person for whom “natural death has become reasonably foreseeable.”  The Senate ultimately passed the bill but the controversy about assisted suicide for psychiatric patients is still raging.

In a June 21, 2016 commentary in the Canadian Medical Association Journal “Should assisted dying for psychiatric disorders be legalized in Canada?”, authors Scott Y.H. Kim MD PhD and Trudo Lemmens LLM DCL warn against this.

As they note:

In Belgium and the Netherlands, medical assistance in dying has been provided to people with chronic schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder, severe eating disorders, autism, personality disorders and even prolonged grief.

The authors conclude that:

Because of the necessarily broad criteria used to regulate assisted dying (in Canada), legalizing the practice for psychiatric conditions will likely place already vulnerable patients at risk of premature death.

However, others like Belgium psychiatrist Joris Vandenberghe, MD, PhD disagree:

“I think the current approach taken by the Canadian government is a bit too strict because it doesn’t fully recognize the enormous impact that psychiatric disorders can have on patients,” Dr Vandenberghe told Medscape Medical News. (Emphasis added)

However, even Dr. Vandenberghe recognizes the problems while still calling for more “safeguards”:

“I am generally not opposed to our euthanasia legislation and agree that patients suffering from psychiatric conditions should not be excluded from our legislation. However, extra precautions are urgently needed.

“I’m not happy with the way things work here [in Belgium]. Sometimes euthanasia is used with insufficient reluctance on the part of the healthcare professionals involved. We’re missing opportunities for treatment, and we need more safeguards,” said Dr. Vandenberghe.

So for me, the answer lies in a thorough evaluation of a patient prior to euthanasia. There really is no time pressure in psychiatric disorders, and if you have a multidisciplinary committee involved in the evaluation, you can take care of lot of the concerns we now have about euthanasia in the setting of psychiatric illness.”

The reality is that very few psychological or psychiatric referrals are even now made for anyone considering assisted suicide either in the US or in Europe. The answer is not more “safeguards” for assisted suicide practitioners to disregard while enjoying virtual legal immunity but rather an emphatic “No!” from the public as well the legal and medical systems. We also need an unbiased media to publicly expose the real facts about legalized medical killing.

 Conclusion

I have seen both the legal and medical systems often fail people with mental illness like my ex-husband who desperately need treatment and safety.

On the medical side, I begged for direction from my ex-husband’s doctors about what I could do to help him but I was told that there was nothing I could do or not do since the doctors were seeing him regularly. I was not allowed to even know his diagnosis without his permission.

On the legal side, I had problems getting supervised visitation even after a hostage situation.  Due to almost constant harassment, I had multiple orders of protection violated without adequate legal response. And despite being on mental illness disability, my ex-husband was allowed to file and lose several frivolous lawsuits-until he ran out of money.

It was a heartbreaking situation.

However, I always hoped that my ex-husband would improve so that he could at least have a better relationship with his children. Even though that did not happen, I am grateful that he did not die by suicide, assisted or otherwise.

Unfortunately, my family’s experience is not unique among families with a member who is mentally ill.

If our medical and legal systems are already often failing people with mental illness and their families, how can we allow them the power to “assist” our loved ones’ suicide?

That would be the ultimate betrayal of an already stigmatized and vulnerable group of people.