1996: NO BLANK BULLETS

No Blank Bullets

Commentary by Nancy Valko, RN

This was originally published in the January-March 1996 edition of the Patients Rights Council newsletter.

Commentary: No Blank Bullets: By Nancy Valko

Ready… aim… fire!

All the B-movie scenes I watched as a child flashed through my mind when I heard that a convicted murderer had been recently executed by firing squad. My visceral reaction was to cringe, instantly imagining the terror of being blindfolded and waiting for the bullets to hit. What I couldn’t imagine, though, were the feelings of being one of the men called to pick up and aim a piece of cold, hard steel at another human being. Would the man cope by pretending it was just another round of target practice? Would he try to remember the details of the murders and the tears of the victims’ families to muster the outrage that such crimes call for? What did he feel after the execution — sadness or satisfaction?

I was not surprised to later learn that one of the firing squad guns contained only blank bullets. In such circumstances, it is sensible to protect each executioner from the certain knowledge that he personally ended another’s life. In the more common lethal injection executions, the process is said to include at least two people and two buttons to start the process. Again, the procedure for legally terminating another life tries to protect those whom society asks to perform the awful task.

It is ironic, therefore, that society is considering the addition of yet another kind of execution to the legal list — assisted suicide — but this time without the blank bullets.

Few people would seriously consider legalizing relative– or family-assisted suicide. The inherent dangers of this type of private killing are much too obvious. Thus, the goal must be physician-assisted suicide or, more accurately, health care professional-assisted suicide, since nurses also must necessarily be involved when the assisted suicide occurs in a health facility or home health situation. We doctors and nurses are the ones society is now considering asking to perform the act of terminating lives, but unlike the firing squad or the lethal injection team, we will know and have to live with the certain knowledge that we caused death.

It is doubly ironic that when a convicted murderer tries to discourage efforts by lawyers to stop his or her execution, this is considered as a sign of stress or mental disorder, while a sick person’s willingness to die is considered an understandable and even courageous decision! How do we reconcile the two views that killing is the ultimate punishment for a convicted murderer and, at the same time, the ultimate blessing for an innocent dying or disabled person?

Both the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association have recently issued strong statements against assisted suicide and euthanasia. While acknowledging the very real deficiencies too often found in care at the end of life, these organizations call for more education and access to help instead of the simple but dangerous option of killing terminally-ill or severely-disabled people or helping such people kill themselves. It is eminently logical that our concern for life should not be limited to just the curable.

And, although some polls show that a significant number of doctors and nurses, like the general public, say they could support assisted suicide in a hypothetical case, when faced with the realities and ramifications of legalizing the practice, most express deep concerns and fears regarding its implementation.

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 have drawn to separate killing from caring now be erased by legislators or judges?

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.

This should not be surprising. Think about it. All of us have had at least fleeting thoughts of suicide in a time of crisis. Imagine how we would feel if we confided this to a close friend or relative who replied, “You’re right. I can’t see any other way out either.” Would we consider this reply as compassionate or, instead, desperately discouraging? The terminally-ill or disabled person is no different from the rest of us in this respect.

I often wonder if right-to-die supporters really expect us doctors and nurses to be able to assist the suicide of one patient and 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 really want to risk more Jack Kevorkians setting their own standards of who should live and who should die?

The excuse that the only real issue is the patient’s choice would be cold comfort to us doctors and nurses when we have to go home and face the fact that we helped kill another human being or had to remain silently powerless while some of us legally participated. There will be no blank bullets then for us — or for society.

Nancy Valko, R.N., is an oncology nurse and the author of numerous articles on bioethical issues. She is also listed in the 1996-1997 edition of Who’s Who in American Nursing.

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