Physician-assisted Suicide Laws: Real Safeguards? No. Discrimination. Yes!

Many years ago before the first physician-assisted suicide law was passed in Oregon, I was asked to see a patient I will call “Eleanor” who was on the oncology (cancer) unit where I worked.

Eleanor was larger than life even when she became ill with cancer in her 50s. Spirited and feisty with a wicked sense of humor, Eleanor regaled us doctors and nurses with her tales about her event-filled life. But over some months when her cancer treatments failed to cure her, Eleanor’s mood darkened and she told me of her plans to commit suicide either with a “doctor” like Jack Kevorkian or by her own hand. She was insistent that she die before she became mentally diminished or physically dependent on others. I notified the doctor and spent time talking with her.

With treatment and especially by addressing her fears and the ramifications of a suicide decision, I was elated when Eleanor changed not only her mind but also her attitude. Once she decided against suicide, she embraced life fully and with gusto. She eventually died comfortably and naturally.

However, after Eleanor changed her mind about suicide and mentioned me, her friends tracked me down and threatened to get me fired because I was unjustly “interfering with her right to die”. Instead of being happy or relieved for Eleanor, these friends were instead outraged that we took the usual measures we would take with anyone to prevent a suicide.

I was shocked then but I am not now, especially after physician-assisted suicide was legalized in some states and one of its’ victims,  the late Brittany Maynard, became a celebrity.

HOW ASSISTED SUICIDE LAWS DISCRIMINATE IN TREATMENT FOR SUICIDAL PATIENTS

When a patient expresses thoughts of suicide, this is considered an emergency. As health care providers, we notify the doctors and an evaluation is done.

As the American Family Physician website states in Evaluation and Treatment of the Suicidal Patient:

“Important elements of the history that permit evaluation of the seriousness of suicidal ideation include the intent, plan, and means; the availability of social support; previous suicide attempts; and the presence of comorbid psychiatric illness or substance abuse. After intent has been established, inpatient and outpatient management should include ensuring patient safety and medical stabilization; activating support networks; and initiating therapy for psychiatric diseases. Care plans for patients with chronic suicidal ideation include these same steps, as well as referral for specialty care.” (Emphasis added)

However, physician-assisted suicide laws like Washington state’s “Death with Dignity Act” only  requires doctors to

 (e) Refer the patient for counseling if appropriate under RCW 70.245.060

and

If, in the opinion of the attending physician or the consulting physician, a patient may be suffering from a psychiatric or psychological disorder or depression causing impaired judgment, either physician shall refer the patient for counseling.” (Emphasis added)

Not surprisingly, very few people are referred for counseling since assisted suicide activists and some others consider such suicides “rational”.

HOW PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE LAWS DISCRIMINATE EVEN IN DEATH CERTIFICATES

While it can be painful to the family (as I personally know), when suicide is determined to be the cause of death, it must be reported as such on the person’s   death certificate.

However, the Washington State assisted suicide law actually forbids doctors from listing  suicide or assisted suicide as the cause of death: “(2) The attending physician may sign the patient’s death certificate which shall list the underlying terminal disease as the cause of death.

There are even detailed “Instructions for Physicians and Other Medical Certifiers for Death Certificates: Compliance with the Death with Dignity Act”:

“If you know the decedent used the Death with Dignity Act, you must comply with the strict requirements of the law when completing the death record:

  1. The underlying terminal disease must be listed as the cause of death.
  2. The manner of death must be marked as “Natural.”
  3. The cause of death section may not contain any language that indicates that the Death with Dignity Act was used, such as:
  4. Suicide
  5. Assisted suicide
  6. Physician-assisted suicide
  7. Death with Dignity
  8. I-1000
  9. Mercy killing
  10. Euthanasia
  11. Secobarbital or Seconal
  12. Pentobarbital or Nembutal

The Washington State Registrar will reject any death certificate that does not properly adhere to the requirements of the Death with Dignity Act.1 If a death certificate contains any reference to actions that might indicate use of the act, the Local Registrar and Funeral Director will be instructed, under RCW 70.58.030, to obtain a correction from the medical certifier before a permit to proceed with disposition will be issued.”(Emphasis added)

This flies in the face of the 2003 CDC’s Medical Examiners’ and Coroners’ Handbook on Death Registration and Fetal Death Reporting that states:

“The death certificate is the source for State and national mortality statistics (figures 1–3) 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.” (Emphasis added)

The Handbook also gives the distinctions between manners of deaths:

Natural—‘‘due solely or nearly totally to disease and/or the aging process.’’

Suicide—‘‘results from an injury or poisoning as a result of an intentional, self-inflicted act committed to do self-harm or cause the death of one’s self.’’

Why were the activists and lawyers who wrote this law not challenged when it was written to actually require doctors to lie on a legal document and add yet another layer of secrecy?

Again, as I wrote in my previous blog “Why Should Physician-Assisted Suicide Laws Grant Special Privileges?” , legislatures and the public need to know and challenge these outrageous provisions as well as being informed about the personal and societal dangers of assisted suicide itself. We must demand truth, transparency and accountability, especially when life and death are at stake.

My Submission to the New Zealand Parliment on Physician-assisted Suicide

On January 30, 2016, I wrote this submission to the New Zealand Parliament’s Health Committee. Today I received an email that it was accepted.

Here is my submission:

Please Reject Physician-assisted Suicide by Nancy Valko, RN ALNC

Nancy Valko, RN ALNC

I have been a registered nurse in the US 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. 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.

Submission

marievalko Picture of Marie Valko 1979-2009

As a nurse and the mother of a suicide victim, I am alarmed to learn that New Zealand is considering the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. I beg you to uphold the legal and ethical standard that the medical profession must not kill their patients or help them kill themselves. Suicide is a tragedy to be prevented if possible, not a civil right. I am also willing to make an oral submission to the New Zealand parliament.

My Daughter Marie 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 increased rate of Total Suicides

A recent 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 of 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 46 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

Could Brittany Maynard Have Been Saved?

This week, CBS’ “60 Minutes” TV show reported that FDA has just granted “breakthrough status” for an innovative treatment for glioblastoma brain cancer that was first reported by 60 Minutes on March 29, 2015.

Brittany Maynard had glioblastoma and died by physician-assisted suicide on November 1, 2014, just 5 months before the original TV segment aired.

Brittany Maynard was a young newly wed who, with enormous media publicity and the support of the pro physician-assisted suicide group Compassion and Choices, announced her intention to commit assisted suicide and asked for donations to the Brittany Maynard Foundation to raise money to help Compassion and Choices fight for legalization of physician-assisted suicide throughout the US.

Using Brittany’s story and foundation, Compassion and Choices was finally successful after years of failed attempts to get a physician-assisted suicide law passed in California.

Did Brittany, her doctors or Compassion and Choices know about the promising clinical trials for glioblastoma reported by “60 Minutes” before Brittany took her life with a physician ordered lethal overdose?

Although reported medical breakthroughs are frequent and often over-hyped or prove disappointing, information is available at ClinicalTrials.gov, a registry and results database of publicly and privately supported clinical studies of human participants conducted around the world. This service was developed by the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration and made available to the public in February 2000.

The Decision to Forego Treatment

According to Brittany’s own words:

After months of research, my family and I reached a heartbreaking conclusion: There is no treatment that would save my life, and the recommended treatments would have destroyed the time I had left…

And

I probably would have suffered in hospice care for weeks or even months. And my family would have had to watch that.

No one is ethically obligated to try any experimental or unduly burdensome treatment for such conditions but many people do so not only for a possible cure but also to potentially gain more time or to advance medical research. I saw this when I was an oncology nurse and also in my personal life.

For example, a few years ago, a friend developed a usually terminal lung cancer and agreed to try  an unusual and massive combination of chemotherapy and radiation. As explained by her doctors, the side effects were very tough on her but today she is happy, active and enjoying her life and her grandchildren. Her cancer continues to be in remission. Success stories like this were unimaginable of when I first became a nurse.

But while treatment of a serious or terminal condition can be a personal choice, killing oneself-with or without medical assistance-must not be treated as just another valid treatment “option”.

Hard Cases Make Bad Law

“Hard cases make bad law” is an old legal adage that means that an extreme case is a poor basis for a general law that would cover a wider range of less extreme cases. This is particularly true when it comes to physician-assisted suicide where the slippery slope expanding the pool of potential victims has become a superhighway.

I also remember when AIDS, not glioblastoma, was the “hard case” used to justify physician-assisted suicide in the 1990s because it was also considered terminal.

But by 1998, the CDC issued the first national treatment guidelines for the use of antiretroviral therapy in adults and adolescents with HIV  Today, AIDS is no longer considered an automatic death sentence and those with AIDS can even achieve normal lifespans.

But how many despairing people in the 1990s resorted to suicide, assisted or not, when the treatment for AIDS was so close?

Conclusion

Hope can be life-enhancing as well as life-saving.

Sadly, as one brain tumor expert poignantly wrote, Brittany Maynard’s “suicide was a blow to fellow brain tumor patients who were living in hope”.

 

New Study: Suicide Contagion and Legalized Physician-Assisted Suicide

 

Even before my 30 year old daughter Marie died by suicide in 2009 using an assisted suicide technique, I was writing and giving talks on physician-assisted suicide (PAS) for years. Even then, I worried about effect of the mainstream media portraying PAS as a civil right and even “courageous”, especially since the existence of suicide contagion aka “copycat suicides” was well known. I was not surprised when after Marie’s death, at least two people close to her became suicidal. Thankfully, they were saved by treatment.

Now we have even more information about this from a Southern Medical Journal a medical journal article that was published at the same time Governor Brown signed the California’s PAS law. In the study “How Does Legalization of Physician-Assisted Suicide Affect Rates of Suicide?” , researchers meticulously examined suicide rates in Washington and Oregon after those states passed PAS laws.

The results are shocking. In those states, the researchers found a 6.3% increase in total suicide with a larger increase (14.5%) among individuals 65 or older. Moreover, there was no decrease in nonassisted suicides (people taking their own lives), despite the claims of PAS advocates that legalizing PAS would reduce the overall number of nonassisted suicides. Instead, the researchers found that “Rather, the introduction of PAS seemingly induces more self-inflicted deaths than it inhibits.”

On November 20, 2015, the Washington Post newspaper published an excellent op-ed article titled “The Dangerously Contagious Effect of Assisted-Suicide Laws “ by Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, an associate professor of psychiatry and head of the medical ethics program at the University of California at Irvine. Citing the medical journal study, Dr. Kheriaty concludes that:

“Debates about physician-assisted suicide raise broad questions about our societal attitudes toward suicide. Recent research findings on suicide rates press the question: What sort of society do we want to become? Suicide is already a public health crisis. Do we want to legalize a practice that will worsen this crisis?”

Is Suicide Really a Public Health Crisis?

The national Centers for Disease Control website reports the following statistics in a section titled “Suicide and Suicide Attempts Take an Enormous Toll on Society”. Here are some excerpts:

• Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among Americans
• More than 40,000 people died by suicide in 2012
• More than 1 million people reported making a suicide attempt in the past year.
• More than 2 million adults reported thinking about suicide in the past year.
• Most people who engage in suicidal behavior never seek mental health services.

Costs to Society
The following estimates are based on 2010 CDC data and refer to people age 10 and over.
• Suicide costs society over $44.6 billion a year in combined medical and work loss costs.
• The average suicide costs $1,164,499. (Emphasis in original)

The toll on survivors, family member or friends of a person who died by suicide is also enormous, as I can personally attest:

• Surviving the loss of loved one to suicide is a risk factor for suicide.
• Surviving family members and close friends are deeply impacted by each suicide and experience a range of complex grief reactions including, guilt, anger, abandonment, denial, helplessness, and shock

.
Fighting Suicide Contagion

It is tragic that suicide prevention organizations ignore the PAS issue and the mainstream media is almost uniformly sympathetic to the PAS movement despite World Health Organization and national media guidelines for suicide reporting. This has allowed PAS groups like Compassion and Choices not only to press harder for universal PAS laws but also to even change the names of such laws to euphemisms such as “End of Life Options” or “Death with Dignity” to disguise the fact that physician- assisted suicide is obviously suicide.

However, Dr. Kheriaty in his Washington Post article also talks about a related phenomenon called the Papageno effect that:

“suggests that coverage of people with suicidal ideation who do not attempt suicide but instead find strategies that help them to cope with adversity is associated with decreased suicide rates.”

I have always maintained that our stories as suicide survivors, people with disabilities or terminal illnesses, etc. offer hope and inspiration while those about PAS promote despair and hopelessness. We need to tell our stories publicly.

All of us and especially people in states that are currently targeted by groups like Compassion and Choices for legalization of PAS, need to know and share the real facts about PAS as well as suicide prevention and treatment, including the national suicide hotline number (1 (800) 273-8255) and website (www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org).  Suicide prevention and treatment can work whether people are considering PAS or killing themselves.

Addendum: Ironically, just as I was finishing this blog, I was interrupted by a call from a man living in another state with an incurable, disabling condition. He was referred to me last month when he saw a segment on a celebrity’s suicide involving the same condition and decided that he wanted to go to California to use the newly passed PAS law. I talked to this man for quite some time.

I was elated when this gentleman now told me that the resources I recommended, the people he talked to and even just the fact that someone cared did change his mind and he no longer wants to end his life. He said he now wants to start actually living again.

This man’s story shows why we must not discriminate between suicide and physician-assisted suicide when it comes to suicide prevention and treatment.