Assisted Suicide: Nurses in the Line of Fire

By Nancy Valko

Editor’s note. This appeared on Nancy’s blog.

takemyhand95Years ago, the newly legalized Oregon physician-assisted suicide law caused much discussion at my St. Louis hospital. Some of my fellow nurses said that they supported such a law but when I asked them if they would participate, they were shocked.

“No, of course, the doctor would have to do it!,” one exclaimed. Some nurses, like perhaps most people, thought assisted suicide would only occur at a patient’s home with his or her family sitting with the patient watching the drinking of the lethal overdose.

I explained that in hospitals or hospices, would we expect the assisting doctors to be present when the patient ingested the lethal overdose, not to mention staying with the patient and family during the time it could take for the patient to die? My colleague agreed that nurses, not doctors, would probably bear the brunt of the “dirty work” of assisted suicide.

Back in 2000 and three years after Oregon legalized physician-assisted suicide, I saw an article from Nursing Spectrum magazine titled “Assisted Suicide: What Role for Nurses?” that stated:

Initially, when the law was designed, the assumption was that physicians would be the first ones to explore PAS with patients,” says Pam Matthews, RN, BSN, administrator for Evergreen Hospice, Albany, OR, “but in reality, nurses are usually the ones in the line of fire…. Much of nurses’ roles lies behind the scenes long before the drama of PAS unfolds. Home care and hospice nurses actively help patients understand their rights, acting as advocates for those who are considering PAS.”

How many nurses are really willing to “advocate” for physician-assisted suicide? The article states:

“Before PAS became law, it was publicly debated, and we performed surveys of our hospice teams’ feelings on the issue,” Matthews says. “We found that most nurses felt strongly that patients should have the choice of PAS, although most said they would not participate in the event.”

Recently, I spoke to a nurse in Washington State who is against physician-assisted suicide law about nurses’ experience with physician-assisted suicide in her state. She referred me to a 2014 study in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management titled “Dignity, Death, and Dilemmas: A Study of Washington Hospices and Physician-Assisted Death.”

While 21% of the Washington hospices in this study, mostly religiously-affiliated, refused any involvement in assisted suicide, this study sadly confirms how legalization has affected both hospices’ and nurses’ role in assisted suicide.

Here are some excerpts:

First of all, the study notes that:

(T)he primary patient rights organization that facilitates arrangements for physician-assisted death, Compassion & Choices, refers terminally ill patients to hospice programs as a first resort for end-of-life caregiving. (emphasis added)

And admits that:

The authorizing legal statutes in both states (Oregon and Washington) make no reference to the experience of severe pain or intolerable suffering as an indication for a patient to make a request for physician-assisted death but rely entirely on the entitlement due a patient in respect of their personal dignity. (emphasis added)

However, the study rationalizes the upwards of 90% of physician-assisted suicide victims being enrolled in hospice:

The designation of a ‘‘physician’’ as the primary professional resource for patients allows hospice programs to maintain fidelity to the norm that ‘‘hospice neither prolongs nor hastens dying.” In short, although most patients who use the Death with Dignity rights are enrolled in hospice, hospice programs want to stress that this is a ‘‘physician-directed’’ process, not ‘‘hospice-assisted’’ death. (emphasis added)

The study provides further dubious rationalization:

Although the phrase (“hastening death”) is descriptively accurate about what typically happens when a patient ingests the medication, describing the process in this manner appears to compromise a central hospice precept that dying or death is not to be hastened. It thus raises a broader question about an evolving hospice identity and integrity in which, in contrast to historical tradition and practice, hospice programs are willing to incorporate practices that hasten death. Insofar as several hospices in both Oregon and Washington have policies with respect to palliative sedation, in which pain relief is the primary goal even if death is hastened as a secondary consequence, it may be that some hospice programs could legitimately claim that the issue has already been resolved, and physician-assisted death is the moral equivalent for hospice of palliative sedation.” (emphasis added)

As far as allowing the hospice nurse to exercise his or her conscience rights:

In every circumstance in which personal, moral, or ethical values are cited as a basis for a caregiver to request they withdraw from being the responsible caregiver for a patient that makes a request, another staff member must be available to assure continuity of care and avoid violating the hospice value of non-abandonment.” Two traditional tenets of hospice philosophy-non-abandonment and refraining from ‘‘hastening death’’–remain prevalent values but create their own complications. (emphasis added)

One obvious complication is that it may not always be possible to find another nurse willing to be involved in the assisted suicide and if not enough willing nurses can be found, this “right” to withdraw may result in workplace discrimination against such nurses or even rejection of some potential hospice nurses before employment.

The article also cites a surprising reason, denied or unmentioned in news stories, for some hospice policies restricting nurses from actually attending the assisted suicide:

This may be particularly compelling in circumstances where the patient experiences complications with the medication (e.g., when the patient aspirates the medication), and some further medical treatment is needed by the patient for death to occur. In this context, the restriction on hospice staff presence serves as a further check against physician-assisted death becoming hospice-assisted death. (emphasis added)

In the conclusion, the study refers to a 2011 Hastings Center Report by ethicist Bruce Jennings, MA:

Jennings contends that legalized physician-assisted death presents a defining moral choice for hospice identity because ‘‘legalization(of physician-assisted death) would liberate dying people from what hospice had been teaching could be a meaningful and valuable time of life. On the other hand, a major part of that quality of living while dying that hospice champions is autonomy, respect, and dignity. How could hospice stand against that? (emphasis added.)

For the sake of ourselves, our patients and our profession, how can we nurses NOT make a stand against physician-assisted suicide?