The Opioid Crisis and Suicide

Statistics show that more than 115 Americans a day die after overdosing on opioids. Opioids  are a class of drugs that include both illegal drugs like heroin and legal prescription pain relievers such as codeine and morphine.

We are told that we have an opioid crisis that needs immediate solutions such as suing drug manufacturers, spending more on drug treatment centers, making drugs like Narcan more available to reverse the overdose if given in time, prescribing few-in any-opioids after surgery, adding more drug education in schools, etc.

Some of these ideas are worthy but are we missing a big existential part of the problem?

In a recent Kaiser Health News article asking  “How Many Opioid Overdoses are Suicides?”, reporter Martha Bebinger relates a heartbreaking interview with a young drug addict:

“She wanted to be dead, she said, glancing down, a wisp of straight brown hair slipping from behind an ear across her thin face.

At that point, said Ohlman, she’d been addicted to opioids — controlled by the drugs — for more than three years.

“And doing all these things you don’t want to do that are horrible — you know, selling my body, stealing from my mom, sleeping in my car,” Ohlman said. “How could I not be suicidal?…You realize getting clean would be a lot of work,” Ohlman said, her voice rising. “And you realize dying would be a lot less painful. You also feel like you’ll be doing everyone else a favor if you die.”” (Emphasis added)

Having had a daughter with drug addiction and relapses for 16 years who finally succumbed to suicide in 2009 using a horrific assisted suicide technique, I recognize the same pain this young woman expresses. I also know the frustration and fears of families and friends desperate to help.

The Kaiser article goes on to quote Dr. Maria Oquendo, immediate past president of the American Psychiatric Association, who said that “[Based on the literature that’s available], it looks like it’s anywhere between 25 and 45 percent of deaths by overdose that may be actual suicides,” *(Emphasis added).

The article also quotes a pair of distinguished economists who say that “opioid overdoses, suicides and diseases related to alcoholism are all often ‘deaths of despair’” caused by “underlying deep malaise”. (Emphasis added)

We have both a suicide and a drug crisis that often overlap due to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

EXAMINING THE SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM

As psychiatrist Dr. Oquendo notes in a related article, US suicide rates were declining until they “abruptly stopped in1999” and now have increased 25%, especially among adolescent girls.

Now, there are about 123 reported suicides per day in the US  but the real figure may be as high as 3 to 5 times that number because many suicides go unreported as suicide  because of reasons like the stigma of suicide and the difficulty in determining intent.

Additionally, nearly half of US adults have a close friend or family member with a current or past drug addiction.

We have more drug treatment centers and suicide prevention programs than ever (with unfortunately varying levels of quality and allowed family involvement) but the problems continue to persist and even worsen.

CONCLUSION

What has happened in the US since suicide rates started rising two decades ago and drug abuse has surged?

First, we must recognize that American culture, law and politics changed radically in the last two decades and this has drastically affected all of us, especially our young people. For example, the legalization and glamorization of assisted suicide and mind altering drugs like recreational marijuana have not helped anyone want to embrace personal responsibility and caring for others as worthy goals.

We also now have a culture where religious values are often derided as judgmental and even harmful to social progress. Obscene language and violent, hypersexualized entertainment is applauded as liberating rather than offensive. Having children is portrayed as more of a potential economic, professional and personal burden rather than a joyful manifestation of love, commitment and family.

We owe our society and especially our young people a more hopeful, less selfish view of life rather than just the pursuit of  money, fame and pleasure.

Without a strong foundation of love, strong ethics and ideals, the resilience required to weather both the ups and downs of life without drugs or succumbing to suicide can be lost.

As much as we need good, affordable suicide and drug treatment programs, we adults also need to be examples of a truly “good life” and step up to fight the dangerous influences  that are killing our young people.

And we must never give up!

What You Need to Know About Medical Abortion and Abortion Reversal

This month Governor Butch Otter signed a law making Idaho the fifth state to mandate that women getting a medical (drug-induced) abortion be told that the abortion may possibly be stopped after the first dose if the woman changes her mind about having the abortion. This abortion reversal process  involves taking the hormone progesterone to counteract the first abortion drug mifepristone and before taking the second drug misoprostol 36-72 hours later that causes expulsion of the unborn baby. There is now a website at www.abortionpillreversal.com for information on abortion reversal that includes a hotline phone number at 1-877-558-0333.

The first abortion reversal  was performed by Dr. Matthew Harrison in 2007 and by 2015, he claimed that more than 213 babies had been saved. Although not always successful, abortion reversal has resulted in hundreds more babies alive today. Last December, the California Board of Registered Nursing finally notified Heartbeat International that it can now grant continuing education units (CEUs) to nurses who study the life-saving process known as Abortion Pill Reversal.

Planned Parenthood and other abortion groups are not pleased.

As I wrote in my February 16, 2017 blog “Are Mail Order Abortions Coming?” , medical abortions rates now rival surgical abortion rates while abortion clinics are closing at a record pace because of factors like “economic difficulties”, “a generally hostile atmosphere and declining demand”. Thus, the medical abortion procedure has become more appealing to groups like Planned Parenthood and now there are even efforts to provide more medical abortions by telemedicine even though a 2014 study found more complications with medical abortions than surgical ones.

THE PROMOTION AND CHANGING CRITERIA FOR MEDICAL ABORTION

In a disturbing March 27, 2018 Medscape article Medical Abortion in Very Early Pregnancy” (password protected),  Peter Kovacs, MD, PhD touts a study that allegedly shows medical abortion is now safe even “as soon as early pregnancy is diagnosed” and even before an ultrasound can show if the unborn baby is developing outside the womb. This abnormality is called an ectopic pregnancy and, if not detected early, can result in life-threatening complications and surgery.  Ectopic pregnancy occurs in 1-2% of  all pregnancies.

But as even Dr. Kovacs admits:

“Under well-controlled conditions using sedation and appropriate pain control, surgical termination of pregnancy is associated with minimal bleeding or pain. However, it can be associated with surgical complications (trauma, heavier bleeding, infection), which can lead to further interventions.

Medical abortion can be more painful because the products of conception have to be expelled from the uterus, and it is accompanied by prolonged bleeding. Still, medical abortion obviates surgical complications and is significantly cheaper.” (Emphasis added)

He recommends  “(A)propriate patient selection (no increased risk for or symptoms of ectopic pregnancy, appropriate follow-up to confirm successful abortion, patient compliance)” as obviously important. (Emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

Planned Parenthood tells women that having a medical abortion (at home, of course) is just “kind of like having a really heavy, crampy period” with large clots and that “(a)ny chills, fevers, or nausea you have should go away pretty quickly”.

And that:

“People can have a range of emotions after having an abortion. Most people feel relief, but sometimes people feel sad or regretful. This is totally normal. If your mood keeps you from doing the things you usually do each day, call your doctor or nurse for help” along with numbers to call for “free, confidential, and non-judgmental emotional support after an abortion.” (Emphasis added)

But two things Planned Parenthood does not tell women about is medical abortion reversal and the availability of real assistance with a problematic pregnancy including crisis pregnancy centers that now outnumber abortion clinics in the US.

Women need-and have a right-to know about both these alternatives.  It’s up to all of us to make sure as many women as possible know this.

Should Nurses or Other Non-Physicians Be Allowed to Perform Abortions?

When abortion was legalized in the 1973 Roe v Wade decision, we were told that abortion should be a private decision between a woman and her doctor.

Now there is a lawsuit by Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union to force the state of Maine to allow abortions by non-physicians such as nurses and midwives.

Why? Although Planned Parenthood and the ACLU claim that this is about the safety of first-trimester abortion and the lack of enough accessible abortion clinics as well as “threats of violence”, the truth is that it is getting harder and harder to find doctors willing to do abortions.

This new expansion of abortion is part of a larger movement to remove restrictions on abortion. According to the liberal Public Leadership Institute, already “California, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon and Vermont allow trained and licensed APCs (advance practice clinicians like nurses and physician assistants) to perform aspiration abortions.”

The Institute even provides model legislation for states called the ““Qualified Providers of Abortion Act” and cites the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as recommending “expanding the pool of non-obstetrician/gynecologist abortion providers by training advanced-practice clinicians (APCs)—nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives and physician assistants—to perform aspiration (aka suction or vacuum) abortions.”

 ABORTION AND SAFETY

The source cited for the claim of safety for non-physician abortions is a new National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report, “The Safety and Quality of Abortion Care in the United States.”

This report cites a 2013 study “Safety of Aspiration Abortion Performed by Nurse Practitioners, Certified Nurse Midwifes, and Physician Assistants Under a California Legal Waiver”  that dismissed the result of twice the number of complications for the non-physicians vs physicians as not “clinically relevant”.

But finding any true statistics on complications of abortion (including death) is already virtually impossible because according to the national Centers for Disease Control (CDC)  “states and areas voluntarily report data to CDC for inclusion in its annual Abortion Surveillance Report. CDC’s Division of Reproductive Health prepares surveillance reports as data become available. There is no national requirement for data submission or reporting.” (Emphasis added)

In addition, abortion clinic health inspections are often lax or ignored. As the Washington Free Beacon reported last October, according to the 2016 “Unsafe-How the Public Health Crisis in America’s Abortion Clinics Endangers Women report from the pro-life advocacy group Americans United for Life, “between 2008 and 2016, 227 abortion clinics were cited for over 1,400 health and safety deficiencies.”

According to Arina Grossu, a bioethicist and the director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council, “Restaurants and tanning salons and vet clinics, they’re all more closely regulated than the abortion industry.”

This, of course, does not take into account the physical, spiritual and emotional toll of abortion on women that I have seen both personally and professionally.

CONCLUSION

In the 2016 US Supreme Court’s Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt at decision held that:

“Two provisions in a Texas law – requiring physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and requiring abortion clinics in the state to have facilities comparable to an ambulatory surgical center – place a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking an abortion, constitute an undue burden on abortion access, and therefore violate the Constitution.”

Abortion supporters cheered and are now emboldened to go farther in their quest for tax-payer funded abortion on demand without restrictions.

But all is not lost.

The number of abortions is declining and there are now more crisis pregnancy centers than abortion clinics.  and more lives are being saved. Programs like Project Rachel are helping even more women and men suffering from the tremendous psychological damage caused by abortion.

Most women are choosing life after viewing an ultrasound of their baby and more  people are opposing taxpayer funding of groups like Planned Parenthood, especially after the scandal of selling aborted babies’ body parts.

But most importantly, we must keep working towards a society that once again views abortion as unthinkable.

Assassins, Not Doctors

Last year, both Hawaii and New Zealand physician-assisted suicide bills were defeated but, much like zombies, both bills were changed and resurrected for 2018.

As I wrote in a  previous blog about Hawaii’s bill, there are concerted efforts not only to pass but also expand assisted suicide laws. This bill is currently awaiting either passage or defeat in the Hawaii legislature’s Senate.

Recently, I submitted testimony on the “End of Life Choice Bill” to legalize physician-assisted suicide in New Zealand. Currently, the bill is being considered in the Select Committee.

The New Zealand bill is different from Hawaii’s in significant ways. Here are some of the differences, with emphasis added:

-It adds “grievous and irremediable medical condition in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability”  to the usual condition of terminal illness.

-It give patients the option of 4 ways to kill themselves or be killed, including lethal injections:

(i) ingestion, triggered by the person:
(ii) intravenous delivery, triggered by the person:
(iii) ingestion through a tube:
(iv) injection

-“The attending medical practitioner must be available to the person until the person dies; or arrange for another medical practitioner to be available to the person until the person dies” by being “in the same room”  or “in close proximity to the person”.

-Conscience rights: If doctors refuse to provide the lethal overdose, they must refer to a SCENZ group established by the Director General to “make and maintain a list of medical practitioners who are willing to act for the purposes of this Act as—replacement medical practitioners: independent medical practitioners”,  list of pharmacists, and “to prepare standards of care; and to advise on the required medical and legal procedures; and to provide practical assistance, if assistance is requested.”

-The assisted suicide death (whose official cause is listed “as if assisted dying had not been provided”) must be reported within 14 days and sent to registrar who must send the report to a Review committee consisting of a medical ethicist and a medical practitioner who practices in area of end of life care and another medical practitioner. The Review committee has these functions: “to consider reports sent to it”, “to report about its satisfaction or otherwise with the cases reported” and “to recommend actions that the registrar may take to follow up with which the review committee was not satisfied.”

-Regular reports will be issued every five years after the first to be done 3 years after the law is implemented. These reports go to the minister and Parliament.

WHY DOES NEW ZEALAND “NEED” PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE?

While citing “strong public support” and “compassion” as motivating this physician-assisted suicide law in the explanatory note at the beginning of the New Zealand bill, the authors also cite cases in New Zealand where “the courts are treating the family members who have assisted their loved ones to die at their request with increasing leniency and compassion.” (Emphasis added)

This, they say “demonstrates further issues with the current state of our law, under which it is becoming permissible, in effect, for family members to assist loved ones to take their own lives. This is clearly less ideal, less clear, and considerably more risky than a regulated process in which medical practitioners can, in limited circumstances, assist those who are suffering.” (Emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

This last statement shows how lethally corrupting assisted suicide is: New Zealand must legalize physician-assisted suicide to spare family members while requiring participating doctors to even administer lethal injections at the sick person’s request and stay until he or she dies?

This turn participating doctors into assassins, not medical professionals.

Very few people enter the health care professions ready to kill some patients or help them kill themselves and dispassionately watch them die. But if physician-assisted suicide becomes law in New Zealand, health care professionals and even society itself will be forced to adjust to the new reality.

As I wrote in my testimony on New Zealand’s bill:

“Do assisted suicide supporters really expect doctors and nurses to be able to assist the suicide of one patient, then go on to care for a similar patient who wants to live, without this having an effect on their ethics or empathy? Do they realize that this can reduce the second patient’s will-to-live request to a mere personal whim – perhaps, ultimately, one that society will see as selfish and too costly? How does this serve optimal health care, let alone the integrity of doctors and nurses who have to face the fact that they personally helped other human beings kill themselves? (Emphasis added)

Conclusion

Medically assisted suicide is a dangerous proposition that has proven to be impossible to strictly limit, corrupts the essential element of trust in the health care system and makes suicide more attractive to vulnerable people as a way to solve life’s problems.”

 

“Living Wills” to Prevent Spoon-feeding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, he noted that:

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

ALZHEIMER’S AND FEEDING TUBES

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

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

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

ALZHEIMER’S AS A FATE WORSE THAN DEATH

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

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

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

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

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

“JOE’S” CASE

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

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

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

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

 

Correction to Previous Blog

I just discovered that when I published my blog “They are Lying to Us!” , I had inadvertently included information about another bill for which I was writing testimony. The line is “Such lethal injections are now approved in HB 2739 when “my attending provider may assist in the administration of the medication if I am unable to self-administer the medication due to my terminal illness.” (p. 30, lines 15-17).” The Hawaii bill does not include that provision. I have now corrected this on my blog.

My apologies!

Nancy V.

They are Lying to Us!

In my last blog “Legal Safeguards, Burdensome Obstacles and Conscience Rights”, I wrote about influential lawyer Thaddeus Pope’s article “Medical Aid in Dying: When Legal Safeguards Become Burdensome Obstacles” that listed  four ways to address such  “burdensome safeguards” in medically assisted suicide laws: “Expanding From Adults to Mature Minors”, “Expanding From Contemporaneous Capacity to Advance Directives” to pre-choose assisted suicide before becoming incompetent, “Expanding From Terminal Illness to ‘Reasonably Predictable’” and “Expanding From Self-Ingestion to Physician Administration”. (Emphasis added)

Other “burdensome obstacles” Mr. Pope has also cited include the waiting time between requests for assisted suicide and the administration of the lethal overdose for some patients and the physician requirement because of problems finding willing doctors.

While groups like Compassion and Choices and a mostly sympathetic mainstream media continue to tout allegedly strong “safeguards” in assisted suicide laws that allegedly prevent abuse, these “burdensome obstacles”- which already have been mostly eliminated in countries like Canada and Holland- are now beginning to fall here in the US and other new countries. Few of us are aware of this.

HAWAII

A case in point is Hawaii, whose legislature rejected assisted suicide just last year.

This year, a new bill, HB 2739, called the “Our Care, Our Choices Act” was recently fast-tracked in the legislature with testimony scheduled for February 27, 2018. It would allow advanced practiced registered nurses as well as doctors to be the “attending provider” for assisted suicide.

Despite the ubiquitous at least six problems with US assisted suicide laws that I have written about before, the Hawaii legislators claimed “robust safeguards” such as, “if appropriate”, the doctor (or nurse) can refer the terminally ill patient for  “counseling” to be performed by “a state-licensed psychiatrist or psychologist” but just for “determining that the patient is capable of making medical decisions and not suffering from a psychiatric or psychological disorder or depression causing impaired judgment”. This is not the same as the usual psychiatric/psychological evaluation required for other suicidal people. (Emphasis added)

(I submitted my testimony on this bill which is at the end of this blog.)

After “an emotional 5-hour hearing” February 27th, a joint House panel voted in favor of an amended version of HB 2739 that will now head to a vote of the full House in the near future.

The amended bill includes the welcome removal of advanced practice registered nurses as “attending providers” but added social workers to the psychiatrists or psychologists designated as the counselors to determining the patient’s “capability” and allows “counseling” by telehealth instead of in person. Finally, the new bill would also lengthen the time between oral requests for assisted suicide from 15 to 20 days.

Hopefully this terrible new assisted suicide bill will be defeated like last year’s.

But, as usual, Compassion and Choices continues to describe HB 2739 as just:

“Medical aid in dying is an end-of-life medical practice in which a terminally ill, mentally capable individual who has a prognosis of six months or less to live requests, obtains and—if his or her suffering becomes unbearable—self-ingests medication to die peacefully in their sleep.”

We all need to know that we are being lied to about assisted suicide and fight against such laws!


My Testimony on Hawaii’s HB 2739

February 26, 2018

Please Do Not Approve HB 2739, From a Mother and a Nurse

 As the mother of a physically healthy suicide victim who used an assisted suicide technique and as a registered nurse who has cared for suicidal people both personally and professionally for over 40 years, I implore you not to approve the dangerous HB 2739, the “Our Care, Our Choice Act”.

Despite the euphemism of “aid in dying” instead of medically (since advanced practice registered nurses can be “the attending physician”) assisted suicide and the demand for it as a fundamental right, this bill puts both desperate people and our health care system in danger. I want to address both issues.

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 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.

After Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law took effect in 1997, the rate of suicide increased. In 2015, the state’s health department said “The rate of suicide among Oregonians has been increasing since 2000” and as of 2012 was “42% higher than the national average”; suicide had become “the second leading cause of death among Oregonians aged 15 to 34 years.” These figures are in addition to deaths under the Oregon assisted suicide law, which legally are not counted as suicides.

My Marie was one of the almost 37,000 reported US suicides in 2009. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among Americans with more than 44,000 people dying by suicide in 2015, more than 1.4 million people reported making a suicide attempt in the past year and almost 10 million adults reported thinking about suicide in the past year. Suicide costs society over $56.9 billion a year in combined medical and work loss costs.

Our urgent health care crisis is the staggering and increasing number of suicides, not the lack of enough medically assisted suicides.

The Effect of Medically Assisted Suicide on Our Health Care System

 MY STORY

Several years after Oregon’s law was passed, I was threatened with termination from my job as an intensive care unit nurse after I refused to participate in a deliberate overdose of morphine that neither the patient nor his family requested after an older patient experienced a crisis after a routine surgery.

The patient had improved but did not wake up within 24 hours after sedatives used with a ventilator were stopped. It was assumed that severe brain damage had occurred and doctors recommended removing the ventilator and letting the patient die.

However when the ventilator was removed, the patient unexpectedly continued to breathe even without oxygen support. A morphine drip was started and rapidly increased but the patient continued to breathe.

When I refused to participate in this, I found no support in my hospitals “chain of command” and I could not pass off this patient to another nurse so I basically stopped the morphine drip myself, technically following the order to “titrate morphine for comfort, no limit.”

The patient eventually died after I left but ironically, a later autopsy requested by the family showed no lethal condition or brain injury as suspected.

The physician who authorized the morphine demanded that I be fired.

I’ve known other doctors, nurses and therapist who have similarly put their jobs on the line to protect their patients. Unfortunately, we are fast becoming pariahs in the face of medically assisted suicide legalization.

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. For thousands of years doctors (and nurses) have embraced the Hippocratic standard that “I will give no deadly medicine to any one, nor suggest any such counsel.” Should the bright line doctors and nurses themselves drew to separate killing from caring now be erased by legislation?

As a nurse, I am willing to do anything for my patients — except kill them. In my work with the terminally ill, I have been struck by how rarely these people say something like, “I want to end my life.” And the few who do express such thoughts are visibly relieved when their concerns and fears are addressed and dealt with instead of finding support for the suicide option. I have yet to see such a patient go on to commit suicide.

In 2015, the Canadian Supreme Court approved MAID (medical aid in dying aka medically assisted suicide) and lethal injection suicides began in Quebec, one of Canada’s largest provinces. Now, “only 5 of more than 2,000 Canadian patients who used medical aid in dying self- ingested the lethal medication.”

But a December, 2017 Canadian medical journal article “First Results from a Unique Study” done in Laval, Canada showed that although prior to the law, 48% of doctors said they would participate, 30% with conditions and only 28% said they would never participate, afterwards, 77% of the physicians getting MAID requests refused to actively participate, all of them using the conscientious objection clause, even though the study claimed the majority (72%) were in favor of MAID with only 13% of the doctors neutral or ambivalent. The most common reason given for refusal was “too much of an emotional burden to bear”.

Do assisted suicide supporters really expect us doctors and nurses to be able to assist the suicide of one patient, then go on to care for a similar patient who wants to live, without this having an effect on our ethics or our empathy? Do they realize that this can reduce the second patient’s will-to-live request to a mere personal whim – perhaps, ultimately, one that society will see as selfish and too costly? How does this serve optimal health care, let alone the integrity of doctors and nurses who have to face the fact that we helped other human beings kill themselves?

Conclusion

Medically assisted suicide is a dangerous proposition and HB 2739 goes beyond even Oregon’s law by approving advanced practice registered nurses as providers. Other countries have gone farther to include chronic psychiatric conditions, birth defects and even just old age.

We must not discriminate on the basis of health and choice when it comes to desperate people seeking suicide. We must treat all of our citizens with equal concern.

Legal Safeguards, Burdensome Obstacles and Conscience Rights

After I wrote last week’s blog “The New Federal Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” , I was surprised by this criticism: “arguing conscience can make doctors (and others) look whiney, as opposed to heroic” and give assisted suicide supporters “an easy platform to describe them as selfish and out of touch ideologues who want to make their parents suffer.” But this comment did make me think.

Actually, I felt horror, intense sadness and fear when, as I wrote in the blog, I was “threatened with termination (after the fact) for refusing to participate in an unethical health care decision years ago.” I was trying to save my patient from being deliberately terminated with an overdose of morphine that neither he nor his family requested but I found no support in the “chain of command” at my hospital. I could not pass this patient to another nurse so I basically stopped the morphine drip myself, technically following the order “titrate morphine for comfort, no limit”.

Especially as the sole support of three children with no family support, I feared losing my job but I could not participate in good conscience for my patient’s sake. I did not feel either heroic or whiney.

Ironically, a later autopsy requested by the family showed no lethal condition or brain injury as suspected when the patient had a crisis after routine surgery.

I’ve known other doctors, nurses and therapists who have similarly put their jobs on the line for the real reason for conscience rights: protection of patients. We are a thinning white line in the face of expanding demands for deliberate death as a civil right while our US and other countries’ professional organizations are changing or considering changing their positions against medically assisted suicide and euthanasia.

If we who refuse to terminate our patients are harassed or eliminated from our professions and future potential students discouraged from choosing such a profession, patients will be denied the choice of such medical professionals and a final barrier will be broken in the lethal flood to follow.

WHEN “LEGAL SAFEGUARDS” BECOME “BURDENSOME OBSTACLES”

Already there are impatient calls to expand medically assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Thaddeus Pope, JD, PhD, the influential Director of the Health Law Institute and Professor of Law at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota and writer of the Medical Futility Blog, wrote an article last December titled “Medical Aid in Dying: When Legal Safeguards Become Burdensome Obstacles” for the American Society of Clinical Oncology Post. (According to ASCO, it “has taken no official position on medical aid in dying”.)

Mr. Pope notes the “uniformity and similarity” of the six current medically assisted suicide statutes but brings up four so-called “safeguards” affecting the “next-generation issues: the justifiability of prevailing eligibility criteria and procedural requirements” that will allegedly need to be addressed. (Emphasis added)

The first is “Expanding From Adults to Mature Minors” which Mr. Pope characterizes as “unduly restrictive” in part because “Many states already allow terminally ill mature minors to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment”. (Emphasis added)

Mr. Pope’s second issue is “Expanding From Contemporaneous Capacity to Advance Directives”, stating that “All six statutes require that the patient concurrently have both a terminal illness and decision-making capacity. But this dual mandate excludes many patients who have no other exit options” such as those with “advanced dementia”. (Emphasis added)

The third issue he cites is “Expanding From Terminal Illness to ‘Reasonably Predictable’” because:

“(T)his rigid time frame excludes patients with grievous and irremediable conditions that cause suffering intolerable to the individual. Some medical conditions may cause individuals to irreversibly decline and suffer for a long period before dying. Instead of demanding a strict temporal relationship between a medical condition and death, these statutes might be more flexible and instead require that death be ‘reasonably predictable’.” (Emphasis added)

Mr. Pope’s final issue is “Expanding From Self-Ingestion to Physician Administration”:

“First, it excludes patients who lose the ability to self-administer before they otherwise become eligible. Second, self-ingestion is associated with complications. For example, around 3% of these patients had difficulty ingesting or regurgitated the medication. Other patients regained consciousness after ingestion.” (Emphasis added)

And, as in most of the previous issues, Mr. Pope approvingly cites the rapidly expanding assisted suicide situation in Canada:

“Canadian patients avoid all these problems (with self-ingestion), because physicians usually administer the medication. As a result, only 5 of more than 2,000 Canadian patients who used medical aid in dying self-ingested the lethal medication.” (Emphasis added)

Ironically, there is one so-called “safeguard” that Mr. Pope would like to see tightened:

“that the prescribing or consulting physician refer the patient “for a mental health specialist assessment” if “there are -indications of a mental disorder.” Yet prescribing and consulting physicians have referred only 5% of medical aid in patients who are dying. Leading experts argue that this rate is probably too low relative to the expected rate of impaired judgment. Others are “surprised by how rarely the prescribing or consulting physicians refer patients for a psychiatric consultation.” (Emphasis added)

This discrimination in suicide assessment is not acceptable for any suicidal person-except now, of course, for a person requesting medically assisted suicide.

CONCLUSION

Without a strong resistance movement, these proposals are only just the next step in the death agenda. So far, much of the public, government officials and medical professionals have been shielded from the real truth by euphemisms and false reassurances from assisted suicide supporters, a mostly sympathetic mainstream media and often spineless professional and health care organizations. We all must educate ourselves to speak out before it is too late.

The New Federal Conscience and Religious Freedom Division

As a nurse threatened with termination for refusing to participate in an unethical health care decision years ago, I have a special interest in conscience rights for health care professionals.

Over the past several decades, new threats to conscience rights have widened from refusing to participate in abortions to other deliberate death decisions like withdrawal of feedings from people with serious brain injuries, VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking), terminal sedation and physician-assisted suicide.

Thus, I am pleased that the Trump administration just announced the new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division  in the department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to enforce “federal laws that protect conscience and the free exercise of religion and prohibit coercion and discrimination in health and human services”. The division specifically mentions “issues such as abortion and assisted suicide (among others) in HHS-funded or conducted programs and activities” and includes a link to file a conscience or religious freedom complaint “if you feel a health care provider or government agency coerced or discriminated against you (or someone else) unlawfully”.

Predictably, both Compassion and Choices and Planned Parenthood immediately condemned the new department.

In a recent fundraising email, Compassion and Choices states that:

 “This office (OCR) is not about freedom; it’s about denying patient autonomy. Under their proposed rules, providers are encouraged to impose their own religious beliefs on their patients and withhold vital information about treatment options from their patients — up to, and including, the option of medical aid in dying. And your federal tax dollars will be used to protect physicians who make the unconscionable decision to willfully withhold crucial information regarding their care from a patient and abandon them when they are most vulnerable.” (Emphasis added)

Planned Parenthood is just as adamant and includes other issues in their reaction:

“OCR is an important office within the HHS that’s meant to protect health care for marginalized communities, including LGBTQ people and underserved women. But the creation of the new “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” paves the way for discrimination against people for a variety of reasons — be it their gender identity, sexual orientation, or decision to access a safe, legal abortion.” (Emphasis in original)

A SHORT RECENT HISTORY OF FEDERAL CONSCIENCE RIGHTS PROTECTIONS

In response to declining numbers of doctors willing to do abortions in the 1990s, efforts began to mainstream abortion into the health professions such as requiring abortion training for OB/GYNs, shifting training and practice into teaching hospitals and  integrating abortion into regular health care.

The National Abortion Federation along with Medical Students for Choice, pushed for change and in 1995, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education ruled that OB/GYN residency programs must include abortion training or lose accreditation.

That was overturned the next year with the Coats Amendment passed by Congress but  efforts to marginalize pro-life medical professionals continued, especially with newly passed physician-assisted suicide laws and well-publicized withdrawal of feeding tube cases like Terri Schiavo’s.

In 2008, the Christian Medical Association compiled a list of dozens of real-life cases of discrimination in health care, including doctors, medical students, nurses and pharmacists.

That same year, President Bush strengthened the HHS rules protecting the conscience rights of doctors and nurses to refuse to perform abortions.

In 2011, the Obama administration dismantled key provisions of the Bush administration conscience rights rules.

That same year, 12 New Jersey nurses faced firing for refusal to participate in abortion and had to rely on groups like Alliance Defending Freedom to bring a  lawsuit defending their rights. They were finally vindicated in 2013.

Right now, Wisconsin is considering a physician-assisted suicide bill that states a doctor’s refusal to prescribe the lethal drugs or refer the patient to a willing doctor “constitutes unprofessional conduct”.

Obviously, conscience rights cannot depend just on litigation, conflicting state laws or professional organization positions like the American Medical Association’s  or American Nurses Association’s that don’t vigorously defend conscience rights.

As explained on the Dorsey Health Care group website ,

“In January 2018, OCR announced a proposed rule to strengthen conscience-based protections for individuals and entities with objections to certain activities based on religious belief and moral convictions.”

“OCR now proposes to return much of 45 CFR part 88 to its 2008 Bush-era form, adding a requirement that certain recipients of HHS funds certify they comply with conscience protection laws and notify individuals of their rights thereunder”, enhance investigative and enforcement abilities and expands its enforcement authority to more conscience-protection laws than the 2008 or 2011 iterations. It will also “handle complaints [both formal and not], perform compliance reviews, investigate, and seek appropriate action,” including terminating funding and requiring repayment. OCR states “that a more centralized approach to enforcement of conscience protections is necessary in part due to rapidly rising complaints.” (Emphasis added) Comments on this proposed rule can be submitted by March 27, 2018.

CONCLUSION

Health care professionals with pro-life views have been under attack for decades. It’s more than just not being “politically correct”; the very existence of such health care professionals threatens the appropriation of health care by groups dedicated to promoting abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia as civil rights.

Without strong conscience rights protections like a successful Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, they will succeed in making health care termination-friendly.

But in the end, enforcement of the most basic civil right of health care professionals to provide care for patients without being required to participate in life-destroying  activities should not be determined by politics or popularity polls but by the acceptance of the universal principle of respect and protection for human life.

 

A Dark Side of Prenatal Testing

In her February 2018 article “Prenatal Testing and Denial of Care” , Bridget Mora exposes another dark side of prenatal testing: refusal to treat. Ms. Mora is the community education and communications coordinator for Be Not Afraid, a nonprofit that supports parents experiencing a prenatal diagnosis and carrying to term.

While most people have heard of amniocentesis (using a needle to extract and analyze the fluid surrounding an unborn baby in the second trimester), many people are unaware of the screening blood tests that have now become virtually routine for all pregnant women.

The difference is that blood screening tests may indicate a probability or risk score that a baby has a chromosomal anomaly, but a definitive diagnosis can only be made through amniocentesis or CVS (Chorionic villus sampling) using a needle to take a sample of tissue from an unborn baby’s placenta for analysis in the first trimester. Tragically, some parents make a decision to abort based on just a blood screening test.

Ms. Mora tells the story of Oliver Keith whose parents refused amniocentesis because of the risk of miscarriage. When an ultrasound showed abnormalities that suggested a genetic condition like Trisomy 13 or 18, the parents agreed to a blood test when the doctor told them that a diagnosis would ensure the proper treatment when Oliver was born.

However, when the results of the tests showed that Oliver had Trisomy 18, their son was “denied routine care during labor as well as the heart surgery that the same doctors had said would be necessary before the trisomy 18 diagnosis”.

The parents felt that Oliver was being discriminated against because of his trisomy 18 diagnosis and tried to give Oliver every chance at life but, in the end, Oliver died.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PRENATAL TESTING

When I had my last child in 1985, I was offered but refused amniocentesis. In my case, it was offered because I had previously had Karen, my daughter with Down Syndrome.

Some people asked if I was brave or stupid. I told them that I was just well-informed after researching both amniocentesis and CVS.

I knew that both procedures carry a risk of miscarriage and that I would never abort a child because of a disability. I also knew that such procedures can only test for some of the thousands of known “birth defects” and I personally met families who were erroneously told that their child had a defect but were born healthy.

After that, I was remarkably worry-free during my last pregnancy and delivered a healthy girl.

But maternity care has changed a lot since 1985.

Ms. Mora has done a great service in researching newer developments in prenatal testing that now include routine blood tests for all expectant mothers regardless of age or risk factors.

She notes that most parents are simply looking for reassurance that their baby is healthy.

But she also notes:

“Parents may not understand the difference between screening and diagnostic tests or be prepared for the consequences of a poor diagnosis or prognosis.

Very few genetic conditions can be treated prenatally, so if a disability is found, the “cure” proposed by the medical team is frequently abortion. In our utilitarian culture, prenatal screening has increasingly become a search-and-destroy mission to detect and eliminate babies with disabilities as early in pregnancy as possible.

Pressure to abort quickly, before they have had time to process a poor diagnosis and grieve the loss of the healthy child they expected, can throw parents off their usual moral compass.”

PHYSICIAN ATTITUDES MATTER

Ms. Mora is especially concerned about a newer and expensive cell-free fetal DNA test (also called NIPT) done in the first trimester using the mother’s blood. She says that although promoted as up to 99% accurate, independent laboratory studies have found that a positive result for a genetic condition can be incorrect 50% of the time or more.

Ms. Mora writes:

“Despite these serious limitations, adverse NIPT results all too frequently lead parents to have an abortion or doctors to alter treatment.

If a disability or potential disability is detected, the pressure to abort quickly may become intense. Although most parents undergo prenatal screening or testing with no plan to abort on the basis of the results, 80 percent decide to abort after being told their unborn baby has a severe congenital anomaly.

Counseling from physicians is often directive and parents may be encouraged to terminate on the basis of the doctor’s personal biases. A survey conducted by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that 90 percent of the doctors who responded considered abortion to be a justifiable response to uniformly fatal fetal anomalies. Sixty-three percent considered abortion to be a justifiable response to nonfatal anomalies.” (Emphasis added)

HOPE

Bur even when the prognosis for an unborn baby is terminal, Ms. Mora maintains that parents usually want a better option than abortion and states that when offered perinatal hospice support, about 80% of US parents choose to carry their child to term and studies have found that “there appears to be a psychological benefit to women to continue the pregnancy following a lethal fetal diagnosis.”

And as I wrote in “Parent Power”, parents themselves are changing physician attitudes towards children with genetic conditions and even producing laws like “Simon’s Law” which passed in Kansas in 2017.

In the end, knowledge is power and discrimination against people with disabilities is wrong no matter how small the person.