Rest in Peace, Nat Henthoff

The famous writer and intellectual Nat Henthoff died January 7, 2017 at the age of 91.

Wesley Smith wrote a wonderful tribute to this self-described “Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer” in an article titled “Nat Henthoff, Memory Eternal”  for the National Review.

I knew Nat for many years. He was a wonderful man with a great sense of humor and a great intellectual with expertise in many areas including journalism, jazz and law. He was also proud of being a total Luddite and insisted that I send him all my articles by snail mail instead of email-which drove me crazy!

I was honored when he quoted me in his 2003 article “The Culture of Death” in the Village Voice but I was embarrassed when he sent a photographer from the newspaper to take my picture for the article.

I now treasure that article.

Rest in peace, Nat. We miss you  and we will never forget you!

The Slippery Slope-Tactics in the Assisted Suicide Movement

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

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

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

TODAY’S SLIPPERY SLOPE TACTICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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

Just in Time for Christmas-Room at the Inn

In a wonderful, uplifting opinion article titled “Room at the Inn”  in the Wall Street Journal on December 19, William McGurn wrote about  the Good Counsel home in the Bronx , now part of a network of six such homes that offer help to homeless pregnant women.

It all started when Chris Bell, a husband and father himself, went to his parish priest in 1985 complaining that no one was doing anything for homeless pregnant women. The priest replied in effect “Hey, pal, what about you?

With the help of that priest, the first Good Counsel home started shortly thereafter. The home not only provides a safe, warm environment for the mother and baby (and even siblings) until birth but also “lets them stay a year afterward—to finish school, train for a job and learn how to care and provide for their babies.” Mr. Bell takes no government money.

The first Good Counsel home was started in a former convent in Hoboken, New Jersey that was part of the parish where singer Frank Sinatra was baptized. When a news article about the home and its financial struggles was published, Good Counsel home received a surprise check for $10,000 from Mr Sinatra himself.

William McGurn notes that this Christmas, Good Counsel’s women known that there will not be many presents under the tree:

But there will be joy. Because Good Counsel is about life, and hope, and respect. As well as the promise that, with love and hard work, happy endings are still within reach even for those who have made some bad decisions.

And especially at Christmastime, Good Counsel wants that troubled young pregnant woman who thinks she’s all alone to know: There’s always room at this inn

It is often said that the pro-life movement is just an anti-woman political movement to deny  women the “choice” of abortion. Personally, I have found the pro-life movement to be one of the greatest volunteer movements ever, committed to people and principles.

CONCLUSION

Here in St. Louis, we have Our Lady’s  Inn that has long offered the same kind of help as Good Counsel.

Is there a similar kind of place in your area? If so, consider supporting it or volunteering. If you don’t know, check with your church, local Birthright  or Heartbeat International’s Worldwide Directory of Pregnancy Help.

Even a small donation would be a wonderful way to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas!

Pain and “Choice”

It was 1969 and I was fresh out of nursing school when I was assigned to a patient I will call “Jenny” who was thirty two years old and imminently dying of cancer. She was curled up in her bed, sobbing in pain and even moaned “just kill me.” The small dose of Demerol I injected into her almost non-existent buttocks every four hours “as needed” was not helping. I reassured Jenny that I was immediately calling the doctor and we would get her more comfortable.

However, I was shocked when the doctor said no to increasing or changing her medication. He said that he didn’t want her to get addicted! I told him exactly what Jenny said and also that she was obviously very close to death so addiction would not be a problem. The doctor repeated his no and hung up on me.

I went to my head nurse and told her what happened but she told me I had to follow the doctor’s order. Eventually, I went up the chain of command to the assistant director of nursing and finally the Chief of the Medical Staff. The verdict came down and I was threatened with immediate termination if I gave the next dose of Demerol even a few minutes early.

I refused to abandon Jenny so for the next two days before she died, I spent my time after my shift sitting with her for hours until she fell asleep. I gave her whatever food or drink she wanted. I stroked her back, held her hand and told stories and jokes. I asked her about her life. I did everything I could think of to distract her from her pain and make her feel better. It seemed to help, although not enough for me. I cried for Jenny all the way home.

And I was angry. I resolved that I would never watch a patient needlessly suffer like that again.

So I educated myself by reading everything I could about pain medicine and side effects. I also pestered doctors who were great at pain control to teach me about the management, precautions and rationale of effective pain management. I used that knowledge to advocate and help manage my patients’ pain as well as educating others.

I was delighted to see pain management become a major priority in healthcare and even called “the fifth vital sign” to be evaluated on every patient. I saw new developments like nerve blocks, new drugs and regimens to control pain and other techniques evolve as well as other measures to control symptoms like nausea, breathlessness and anxiety. Now we also have nutritional, psychological and other support for people with terminal illnesses and their families.

Best of all was that I never again saw another patient suffer like Jenny despite my working in areas such as ICU, oncology (cancer) and hospice.

TWENTY-FOUR YEARS LATER

When my oldest daughter was 14, she attended a public high school where the science teacher unexpectedly started praising the infamous Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his public campaign for legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia.  Kevorkian’s first reported victim was Janet Adkins, a 54 year old woman with Alzheimer’s in no reported physical pain who was hooked up to a  “death machine” in the back of a rusty van. Mrs. Adkins was just the first of as many as 130 Kevorkian victims, many if not most of whom were later found to have no terminal illness. Kevorkian escaped prosecution-even after he harvested a victim’s organs and offered them for transplant-until the TV show 60 Minutes aired Kevorkian’s videotape showing him giving a lethal injection to a man with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Shockingly, Kevorkian served only 8 years in prison before he was paroled and eventually became a media celebrity peddling assisted suicide and euthanasia.

My daughter, who never before showed any interest in my speaking and writing on the topic of assisted suicide, now stood up and peppered her teacher with facts about Kevorkian. The teacher asked her where she learned her information and she answered “From my mom who is a cancer nurse”.

Sarcastically, he responded “So your mother wants to watch people suffer?” My daughter responded “No, my mother just refuses to kill her patients!” End of discussion.

CONCLUSION

But not the end of the story. Tragically, we now have legalized assisted suicide in several states and serious efforts  to expand it to include people without physical pain but with conditions like Alzheimer’s, mental illness or other psychological distress as well as even children.

As Wesley Smith recently and astutely observed :

 Moreover, the statistics from Oregon and elsewhere show that very few people commit assisted suicide due to physical suffering. Rather, the issues are predominately existential, such as fears of being a burden or losing dignity

The public is being duped by groups like Compassion and Choices that campaign for legalized assisted suicide on the alleged basis of strict criteria for mentally competent, terminally ill adults in unbearable physical pain to freely choose physician-assisted suicide with (unenforceable) “safeguards”.

The emerging situation throughout the world is more like Kevorkian’s dream of unfettered and universal access to medical termination of the lives of “expendable” people. How much easier is that when people with expensive mental health problems, serious illnesses or disabilities can be encouraged to “choose” to be killed?

A Doctor’s New Euphoria

A Dec.4, 2016 Wall Street Journal article titled “Diagnosing Your Doc’s New Euphoria-Suddenly there’s hope for dismantling ObamaCare—and restoring sanity for doctors and patients” by Dr. Marc Siegel recounts the disturbing health insurance experiences of two of his patients in office visits.

He writes that:

Such encounters happen much more often now because ObamaCare has added low-quality heavily subsidized insurance that claims to be comprehensive and inflates patient expectations. This has bled into the entire health-care system, where more and more patients come to doctors expecting far more than we can possibly deliver regardless of their insurance….

Government regulations cause patients to buy expensive insurance policies. One example is ObamaCare’s requirement that everyone on the exchanges, Medicaid patients and businesses with fewer than 50 employees that provide coverage all be covered for maternity care and other benefits whether or not they need them.

He concludes:

 If much of ObamaCare is repealed, there will be room for more choice, competition and cost awareness. We can see a return of catastrophic health insurance with lower tax-deductible premiums, high deductibles and more payment up front, with government-run clinics for those who lack insurance.

I noticed my own doctor’s good mood the other day at my yearly wellness visit and I was not surprised. With the likely repeal or reform of Obamacare with its burdensome government regulation and compliance mandates, the current high burnout rate of physicians and other health care workers may decrease.

But there are other problems with Obamacare as it is structured today.

I have long been concerned about the direction of healthcare and in 2003, I was privileged to serve on a Catholic Medical Association task force on healthcare reform. Many great ideas, such as health savings accounts, measures to help the uninsured poor, and better conscience rights protections, were developed and published in a 2004 report entitled “Health Care in America: A Catholic Proposal for Renewal”. The result was some interest but little action as the Iraq War heated up.

In 2009, I wrote an article titled “A Nurse’s View of Ethics and Health Care Legislation”   about the proposed new Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). I read much of HR 3200, the 1000+-page proposed health care reform bill proposed before passage of the final Affordable Care Act that Rep. Nancy Pelosi famously said that Congress had “to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it”.   Here is some of what I wrote then with emphasis added:

I am also concerned about a massive governmental overhaul of our health care at an exorbitant financial as well as moral cost.

Much of the bill’s language is murky legalese that is hard to understand. Much of the language is vague enough to allow all sorts of interpretations — and consequences….

Government officials who advocate the proposed healthcare reform legislation are furiously trying to allay the fears of the increasing number of citizens who oppose the bill — but we have only to look at the statements and philosophy of the people supporting this bill to recognize potential dangers. Here are some examples:

Compassion and Choices (the newest name for the pro-euthanasia Hemlock Society) boasted that it “has worked tirelessly with supportive members of congress to include in proposed reform legislation a provision requiring Medicare to cover patient consultation with their doctors about end-of-life choice (section 1233 of House Bill 3200).”

— On abortion, President Barack Obama not only said “I remain committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose” on the January 22, 2009 anniversary of Roe v. Wade, but he also moved to rescind the recently strengthened federal conscience-rights protections for doctors and nurses who object to participating in abortion.

— On rationing: Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, President Obama’s health care advisor, wrote in the January 2009 issue of the British medical journal Lancet about using a “complete lives system” to allocate “scarce medical interventions”. He wrote that “When implemented, the complete lives system produces a priority curve on which individuals aged between roughly 15 and 40 years get the most substantial chance, whereas the youngest and oldest people get chances that are attenuated.

I hoped that I would be proven wrong about Obamacare but today’s problems with it speak for themselves.

Hopefully, our leaders will now come up with common sense and ethical changes that will meet the needs of the public and help healthcare providers provide the best care possible.

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: the criminal, civil and professional immunity given to doctors and others involved as long as they claim they acted in “good faith”. In addition, the secrecy and often yearly destruction of even the minimal information self-reported by the doctors as well as  falsified death certificates listing such deaths as natural effectively destroys any pretense of an enforceable law.

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

THE MISSOURI EXPERIENCE

Missouri’s law against assisted suicide states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FALLOUT AND CONSEQUENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missouri Revised Statutes
Section 404.872.1

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

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

(L. 1992 S.B. 573 & 634 § 7)

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

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

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

How hard?

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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

 

 

Oh, Colorado!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, we will never know.

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

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

Why Talk About Abortion?

Many years ago when I worked in home health and hospice, I cared for a very cranky, elderly woman I will call “Rose” who had rejected all the other nurses in our agency. Even her own doctor had problems with her and told me that he could not understand why she was even still alive because her end stage congestive heart failure was so severe. Part of my assignment was to measure her abdomen and legs to adjust her diuretics (water pills).

As I got to know Rose over several visits, she softened towards me and began telling me about her life. But one day, while I was measuring her abdomen, she burst into tears and told me she hated looking 9 months pregnant because of the fluid retention in her abdomen. Rose said she knew it was God punishing her for the abortion she had 60 years before!

Rose had never told anyone, not even her late husband, about the abortion she had before marrying him. She felt that baby was the boy she never had but she didn’t feel worthy to even name him. She also told me that she knew she had committed the “unforgivable sin” and was afraid to die because she justly would be sent to hell. My heart went out to this woman who was suffering so much, more emotionally than even physically.

We talked for a long time and in a later visit about God’s love, confession and forgiveness. I told her about Project Rachel, a healing ministry for women (and even men) wounded by abortion. I gave her the phone number and offered to be with her to meet a counselor or priest but she insisted that my talking with her was enough to help. I felt it wasn’t but she seemed to achieve a level of peace and she even started smiling.

Rose died suddenly and apparently in her sleep about a week later. I only had a few visits with her but I feel she finally felt ready to meet her Lord.

I have told this true story to priests and clergy who tell me that they are reluctant to speak about abortion in homilies for fear of causing further pain to a church member who may have had an abortion. I tell them that they may tragically miss the chance to tell a hurting woman like my Rose about Project Rachel. Also, by speaking about the many resources available through individual churches, local and national organizations like Birthright and the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, this may help another woman to choose life for her baby instead of abortion. And, of course, talking about pro-life resources may help church members get involved in volunteer work.

WHY NONE OF US SHOULD BE AFRAID TO TALK ABOUT ABORTION

There are great pro-life news outlets like Life News that email daily or weekly updates on news about all life issues. There are many positive and even amazing stories such as those about babies who defy the odds against them, grateful parents who choose life in difficult circumstances as well as important pro-life news, education and upcoming events.

I have shared many of those stories myself with friends, family and people on my email lists and this has led to many great discussions and crucial referrals.

But what I have found most effective is a  sincere interest and willingness to help when encountering people struggling with an abortion decision for themselves or someone close to them. For example, a new colleague of mine was considering abortion after her obstetrician recommended abortion and listed all the birth defects that could affect her child after being exposed to a virus early in pregnancy. Getting a second opinion and the support of her coworkers gave my colleague the confidence she needed to reject abortion. She ultimately gave birth to a healthy daughter.

Why talk about abortion? Because we never know who may need to hear the truth.

Should Ethics Committees be Death Panels?

I volunteered to serve on a newly started hospital ethics committees in the 1990s. While I wanted to help analyze difficult cases and serve as a resource for hospital personnel with ethical concerns, I became increasingly alarmed when I saw cost containment and judgments based on “quality of life” brought up as decisive factors by others on the committee.

I understood more when I researched the beginnings of ethics committees.

BACKGROUND

After numerous failed attempts to legalize euthanasia, the Euthanasia Society of America invented the “living will” in 1967 as a first step in gaining public acceptance of euthanasia by promoting a so-called “right to die”. The group achieved much success by publicly promoting “living wills” as a patient rights document that would give people and/or their families  choice and control at the end of life or, especially after the 1976 Karen Quinlan case, if their quality of life was considered too poor.

Karen Quinlan’s case (where despite predictions,  she continued to live for years after her ventilator was removed) effectively extended the “right to die” to non-terminally ill people said to be in a “persistent vegetative state”, a term invented in 1972 to describe brain-injured people who were awake but assumed unaware.

The later cases of Nancy Cruzan and Terri Schiavo  further extended the “right to die” to withdrawal of feeding tubes and other basic medical care.

Eventually the Euthanasia Society of American became The Society for the Right to Die and finally evolved into Compassion and Choices and the “right to die” became “death with dignity” by lethal overdose.

ETHICS COMMITTEES

Ethics committees in hospitals began to emerge after the Quinlan case as an alternative to controversial court cases and became more prevalent in the 1980s, especially after the Baby Doe case in 1982. That case involved a newborn boy with Down Syndrome and an easily correctable defect that prevented him from eating safely. The parents refused the surgery and were upheld by a judge. An appeal was started but the baby died of starvation and dehydration before his appeal could be heard. Disability, pro-life and other groups and individuals were outraged.

Concerns about lethal medical discrimination against infants with disabilities resulted in the Baby Doe Regulations mandating maximal care to any impaired infant, unless certain exceptions are met.

However, there was much medical and legal opposition to these rules and:

“By the end of 1984,  the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Hospital Association issued statements supporting the use of interdisciplinary ethics committees as an alternative to governmental investigation in such cases.” (Emphasis added)

AN UNEXPECTED PROBLEM

But a surprising development happened on the way to privatizing life and death decisions through ethics committees.

Some people and families resisted and insisted that medical treatment be continued for themselves or their loved ones despite a “hopeless” prognosis and the recommendations of doctors and/or ethicists to stop treatment. Many doctors and ethicists were appalled that their expertise would be challenged and they theorized that such families or patients were unrealistic, “in denial” about the prognosis or were mired in guilt or dysfunctional family relationships.

However, these doctors and ethicists were shocked when in 1991, a court ruled in favor of the husband of Helga Wanglie when he insisted that treatment be continued for his wife despite a “persistent vegetative state” diagnosis.

That court decision was widely criticized in ethics circles and in 1999, Texas enacted a medical futility law.

THE TEXAS ADVANCE DIRECTIVES ACT

In 1999, Texas became the first state to expressly permit doctors to stop life sustaining treatment without consent after a review process by an ethics committee. According to the Texas Advance Directives Act, when care is deemed “futile” or “inappropriate” and the patient or family disagrees,  the patient or family is given 10 days to find another health facility for the patient and pay for “any costs incurred” in the transfer. “If a provider cannot be found willing to give the requested treatment within 10 days, life-sustaining treatment may be withdrawn unless a court of law has granted an extension. “ (Emphasis added)

Thus an ethics committee becomes the equivalent of a death panel.

This kind of ethics committee overreach has now spread far beyond Texas. For example in 2002, I was involved in a similar a case in Missouri involving a brain-injured man despite the state not having a Texas-style law.  It was difficult to find another health care facility to accept the man within the 2 week deadline given by the hospital but ultimately the man not only survived but recovered after the transfer.

The Texas law is now being challenged in the case of Evelyn Kelly, individually, and on behalf of the estate of David Christopher Dunn v Harris Methodist Hospital, a case where a terminally ill, conscious man’s mother fought the ethics committee’s decision to remove his ventilator.

Although Mr. Dunn has since died, the case continues on the question of whether the Texas law is constitutional or not.

In the summary judgement motion filed, Ms. Kelly and her lawyers state that the ethics committee’s action “is an alarming delegation of power by the state law” and “is a far cry from the due process intended to protect the first liberty mentioned in Article 1, Section 19 of the Texas Constitution and that of the Fourteenth Amendment”. (Emphasis added)

Mrs. Kelly and her lawyers make a good point. How can a life and death decision be automatically delegated by law to an unregulated, unaccountable group of individuals outside the legal system?

Even worse, how can the right to live have less legal protection than the “right” to be dead?

The answers to these questions are critically important.