What You Need to Know Now That the District of Columbia Has Become the Seventh Jurisdiction in US to Legalize Assisted Suicide

Despite emails and other efforts to encourage the US Congress to exercise its legal authority to stop the Washington D.C. assisted suicide law, the expected congressional action was not completed within the 30 legislative days required.

However, there may be hope on the horizon according to a  February 18, 2017 Washington Times article that said “Congress can still neutralize the Death with Dignity Act by cutting off its funding through the appropriations process.”

What went wrong with the process of nullifying the assisted suicide law in time?  No one seems to know.

But one thing we do know is that Compassion and Choices, the well-funded assisted suicide activist organization, will continue its relentless fight over and over again in every state without an assisted suicide law and in the courts to make assisted suicide legal throughout the US. But even that is not the final goal.

Ominously, we are now seeing assisted suicide leaders like influential lawyer Kathryn Tucker even criticizing the so-called “safeguards” in assisted suicide laws  as “burdens and restrictions”. She now argues that  assisted suicide should be “normalized within the practice of medicine”.

WHAT WE NEED TO KNOW AND DO NOW

We cannot just depend on lobbying our politicians and legislatures to fight assisted suicide only when such bills are introduced in states legislatures or as public initiative votes. We must constantly reinforce our message that every life is worthy of respect and care, not medical termination.

But we must also understand that the assisted suicide/euthanasia movement has had decades of experience in shaping and publicizing its lethal message through carefully crafted steps to convince the public that physician-assisted suicide must be legalized to prevent or end suffering.

As I wrote in my 2013 article “Then and Now: The Descent of Ethics”, the assisted suicide/euthanasia movement has been very busy in the last several decades. I included a short history of the movement that people should know:

The 1970s brought the invention of “living wills” and the Euthanasia Society of America changed its name to the Society for the Right to Die. The so-called “right to die” movement received a real boost when the parents of Karen Quinlan, a 21-year-old woman considered “vegetative” after a probable drug overdose, “won” the right to remove her ventilator with the support of many prominent Catholic theologians. Karen continued to live 10 more years with a feeding tube, much to the surprise and dismay of some ethicists. Shortly after the Quinlan case, California passed the first “living will” law.

Originally, “living wills” only covered refusal of life-sustaining treatment for imminently dying people. There was some suspicion about this allegedly innocuous document and, here in Missouri, “living will” legislation only passed when “right to die” advocates agreed to a provision exempting food and water from the kinds of treatment to be refused.

But, it wasn’t long before the parents of Missouri’s Nancy Cruzan, who was also said to be in a “vegetative” state, “won” the right to withdraw her feeding tube despite her not being terminally ill or even having a “living will.” The case was appealed to the US Supreme Court, which upheld Missouri law requiring “clear and convincing evidence” that Nancy Cruzan would want her feeding tube removed, but, in the end, a local judge allowed the feeding tube to be removed. Shortly after Nancy’s slow death from dehydration, Senators John Danforth and Patrick Moynihan proposed the Patient Self-Determination Act (never voted upon but became law under budget reconciliation), which required all institutions to offer all patients information on “living wills” and other advance directives. Since then, such directives evolved to include not only the so-called “vegetative” state and feeding tubes but virtually any other condition a person specifies as worse than death and any medical care considered life-sustaining when that person is deemed unable to communicate.

But this “choice” is becoming an illusion. In 1999, Texas became the first state to pass a medical futility law to allow doctors and/or medical committees to  override advance directives and patient or family decisions to continue life-sustaining treatment on the basis that doctors and/or medical committees know best when to stop treatment.

In the 1990s, Jack Kevorkian went public with his self-built “suicide machines”  and the “right to die” debate took yet another direction. By the end of the decade, Oregon became the first state to allow physician-assisted suicide. At first, the law was portrayed as necessary for terminally ill people to die with allegedly unrelievable pain. Within a short time, though, it was reported that “according to their physicians, the patients requested assistance with suicide because of concern about loss of autonomy and control of bodily functions, not because of concern about inadequate control of pain or financial loss.”

Other states eventually followed Oregon but efforts to pass assisted suicide laws often failed in other states so Compassion and Choices (the former Hemlock Society) promoted palliative/terminal sedation and VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) as a legal alternative to assisted suicide in states without such laws.

Compassion and Choices has found much success in working with sympathetic news outlets and pollsters to encourage the public and even medical professionals to support assisted suicide.

Even TV’s popular Dr. Phil McGraw hosted a 2012 segment featuring a Canadian woman who wanted her adult disabled children to die by lethal injection. Ironically, the mother, along with former Kevorkian lawyer Geoffrey Feiger, argued that removing their feeding tubes was an “inhumane” way to end the lives of the adult children. Tragically, when the studio audience was polled, 90% were in favor of lethal injections for the disabled adults. Disability organizations protested after the show, writing that “By conveying social acceptance and approval of active euthanasia of individuals with disabilities by their family members, the segment threatens their very lives”.

Exploiting the natural fear of suffering most people have has also led to a growing acceptance of the premise that it can even be noble to choose death instead of becoming a burden on family members or a drain on society. It is up to us to combat this attitude of despair by  not only educating ourselves and others about the facts and dangers of assisted suicide but also by offering hope and support to those of us most at risk.

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!

 

 

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.