Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVI, No. 2
by Nancy Valko, RN
“Eleanor” (not her real name) was larger than life even when she became ill with cancer in her 50s. Spirited and feisty with a wicked sense of humor, Eleanor regaled us doctors and nurses with her tales about her event-filled life. But as her cancer treatments failed to cure her, Eleanor’s mood darkened and she told us of her plans to commit suicide either with a doctor like Jack Kevorkian or by her own hand. She was insistent that she die before she became mentally diminished or physically dependent on others.
We worked with Eleanor by treatment and especially by addressing her fears and the ramifications of a suicide decision. We were elated when Eleanor changed not only her mind but also her attitude. Once she decided against suicide, she embraced life fully and with gusto. She eventually died comfortably and naturally.
However, when Eleanor initially changed her mind about suicide, her friends tracked me down on the oncology unit where I worked to complain that we doctors and nurses were unjustly “interfering with her right to die”. Instead of being happy or relieved for Eleanor, these friends were instead outraged that we took the usual measures we would take with anyone to prevent a suicide.
At first I thought this incident was an aberration but over the years since Eleanor, I’ve seen this disturbing enthusiasm for “choosing” death go mainstream, especially with the help of the media. What was initially sold to the public by the euthanasia movement as a “living will” to choose to forgo extraordinary means when death was inevitable (a choice that was already available ethically) has now evolved into a demand for medically assisted death. This has led to a change in attitudes not only among the public but also in law and medicine.
Exploiting the natural fear of suffering most people have has led to a growing acceptance of the premise that it is noble to choose death instead of becoming a burden on family members or a drain on society. But many — if not most — people are unaware that the “right to die” issue has gone far beyond just the stereotype of the terminally ill person in unbearable pain.
SUICIDE KITS AND BILLBOARDS
For example, a 91-year-old California woman started a business selling “suicide kits” by mail for $60 each. When a 29-year- old depressed but physically healthy Oregon man recently killed himself using this kit, the elderly woman defended herself by claiming that she was providing a valuable service while noting that her business is growing rapidly. Just as appalling was the response to this young man’s suicide from Faye Girsh, president of the pro-assisted-suicide Hemlock Society of San Diego, who said “If I were his mother, I’d be very upset, but I don’t think I’d be very upset because somebody provided a peaceful means to end his life.”1
This callous disregard of even actual or potential suicide victims and their families is unfortunately not isolated.
In another example, the Final Exit Network erected a billboard in San Francisco that simply says “My life, My death, My choice”, and gives the web site for the group. Final Exit Network said that the billboard was intended to “provoke discussion about the ‘right to die’” even as suicide-prevention experts pointed out that the billboard could lead other suicidal people to take their lives.2 Nevertheless, Final Exit Network has continued its billboard campaign for assisted suicide to places like Boston, stating that it believes that, like civil rights, the right to die will become the “ultimate right of the 21st century”.3
It should also be noted that members of the Final Exit Network have been present (their terminology) at approximately 130 deaths of people they claim were suffering from “intractable and irreversible disease”. Although it received scant media attention, eight of their members are now facing charges related to assisted suicide, including cases in Georgia and Arizona.
Outrage or apathy?
Now, following the template of abortion, the “right to die” is being mostly protected from bad publicity or even serious discussion beyond sound bites. There is a constant drumbeat of newspaper editorials, TV medical and crime dramas, award-winning movies like “You Don’t Know Jack” (about Dr. Kevorkian), etc., that are sympathetic to the “right to die” movement. Opposing arguments are routinely dismissed as cruel ignorance or extreme religious ideology. This has had a profound impact on society.
Polls are showing increasing support for assisted suicide.4 Two more states have joined Oregon in legalizing assisted suicide with similar laws being proposed in many other states. Relatives or friends who claim that out of compassion they helped a loved one die now often escape criminal charges or prison time even in states with laws against assisted suicide. Books like Imperfect Endings tout the acceptance of even a non-terminally ill relative’s decision to die as a wonderful act of love and respect.5 Oregon, the first state to legalize assisted suicide in the 1990s, now finds itself with a suicide rate 35% above the national average.6
Conscience rights for doctors, nurses and pharmacists are especially at risk because without medical participation, the euthanasia movement falls apart. Thus, euthanasia activists like Barbara Coombs Lee, one of the architects of Oregon’s assisted suicide law, claim that strong conscience-right protections encourage “workers to exercise their idiosyncratic convictions at the expense of patient care”.7 Do we really want only health care providers who are comfortable with ending life?
At its dark heart, the euthanasia movement is primarily about a selfish insistence on avoiding suffering no matter what the consequences to others or to society. It is accomplishing its goal by trying to intimidate everyone — health care professionals, grieving relatives, the unsuspecting public — into accepting their lethal agenda.
Will we respond with apathy or outrage?
1 “Local senior’s ‘suicide kit’ business ignites controversy” by Richard Allyn. KFMB TV Channel 8, San Diego, California, March 26, 2011. Online at: cbs8.com/Global/story.asp?S=14326023
2 “Suicide-Prevention Experts Decry Ad” by Katherine Miezkowski. The Bay Citizen, June 22, 2010. Online at baycitizen.org/health/story/suicide-prevention-experts-decry/print/
3 “Billboard Advertises ‘Right To Die’”, TheBostonChannel.com. March 21, 2011. Online at: thebostonchannel.com/news/27269931/ detail.html
4 “Large Majorities Support Doctor Assisted Suicide for Terminally Ill Patients in Great Pain”, Harris Interactive, January 25, 2011. Online at: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/large-majorities-support-doctor-assisted-suicide-for-terminally-ill-patients-in-great-pain-114540239.html
5 “A Mother’s Decision to Die” by Paula Span. New York Times. March 1, 2010. Online at: newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/01/a-mothers-decision-to-die/?pagemode=print
6 “Report: Oregon has higher suicide rate than national average”, Gazette Times, September 9, 2010. Online at: gazettetimes.com/news/local/article_dc63d760-bc6c-11df-9593-001cc4c002e0.html
7 “New HHS ‘Conscience’ Rule Jeopardizes End-of-Life Pain Care” by Barbara Coombs Lee. Huffington Post blog. Online at huffingtonpost.com/barbara-coombs-lee/new-hhs-conscience-rule-j_b_155934.html
Nancy Valko, a registered nurse from St. Louis, is president of Missouri Nurses for Life, a spokesperson for the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses and a Voices contributing editor.