2009 Mercatornet: Have death panels already arrived?

Have death panels already arrived?

The case against: an experienced nurse worries that Obamacare will entrench an existing quality-of-life ethic.

Nancy Valko | Nov 12 2009 | comment

Medical ethics are concerned with care for a patient’s welfare, something huge institutions are not very good at. The controversy about “death panels” in proposed health care reform legislation is to be expected. As a nurse, despite all the soothing noises from the Obama administration, I do believe there is cause for serious concern.
For example, Compassion and Choices (the name of the pro-euthanasia Hemlock Society after its merger with another “right to die” group) 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.”

“End-of-life choice” might have been an innocent term a generation ago, but now in three American states “end-of-life choice” includes legal assisted suicide. No wonder people were worried when they read these words in HR 3962 (also known as the Pelosi bill). It even includes a whole section on “Dissemination of Advance Care Planning Information” that is problematic and misleading.

In addition, although the idea of health care rationing was originally dismissed as a myth, ethicists and the mainstream media admit that health care rationing is necessary. Government committees have been proposed to set rules for health care services.

Is ethical health care reform needed? Of course. In 2003, I was privileged to serve on a Catholic Medical Association task force on health care reform. Many good ideas, such as health-savings accounts, ways to help the uninsured poor, and strong conscience-rights protections, were discussed. The results were published in a 2004 report entitled “Health Care in America: A Catholic Proposal for Renewal”. The Obama Administration has rejected most of these proposals.

Ethics and health care reform

Since I first started writing about medical ethics and serving on hospital ethics committees, I have seen ethics discussions evolve from “what is right?” to “what is legal?” to “how can we tweak the rules to get the result we think is best?” This attitude is not very reassuring when we are considering a massive overhaul of the US health care system.

Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has been ridiculed for coining the term “death panels”. But it resonated with me. In 1983 my daughter Karen was born with Down syndrome and a severe heart defect. Even though Karen’s father and I were told that her chances for survival were 80 to 90 percent after open heart surgery, we were also told that the doctors would support us if we refused surgery and “let” Karen die. We refused to allow such medical discrimination against our daughter.

Later on we were shocked to learn that one doctor had written a “do not resuscitate” order without our knowledge. Apparently he thought I “was too emotionally involved with that retarded baby”.

In later years, I was asked if I was going to feed my mother with Alzheimer’s. And then, after my oldest daughter died from an apparently deliberate drug overdose, I was told that it is usually a waste of time to save suicide attempters.

Did evil people say these things? No. These doctors and nurses were otherwise compassionate, caring, health care professionals. But they are just as vulnerable as the general public to the seductive myth that choosing death is better than living with terminal illness, serious disability or poor “quality of life”.

When government committees and accountants take over health care, will things get better?

Common sense and ethics

Health care does not occur in a vacuum. Real people — patients, families and health care providers alike — are affected when economics and new ethical rationales trump basic needs. The Good Samaritan did not ask whether the man lying on the road had health insurance. The Hippocratic Oath established a sacred covenant between doctor and patient, not health care rationing protocols. I strongly disagree with ethicists who contend that new technologies and economics demand new ethics.

I am tired of hearing some of my medical colleagues talk about patients who “need to die”. I am saddened to hear many of my elderly, frail patients fret about being an emotional and financial burden on their families. I am outraged when I read editorials arguing that those of us who refuse to participate in abortion or premature death should find another line of work.

I recently attended a 40th anniversary nursing school reunion. We remarked on how much has changed. Some things are better — uniforms, equipment and technologies, for example. But some things are worse, especially ethics.

People are often surprised that even back in the late 1960s, we had do-not-resuscitate orders and spoke to families about forgoing aggressive medical treatment when patients seemed to be on the terminal trajectory to death.

But, unlike today, we did not immediately ask them whether we could withdraw food, water and antibiotics to get the death over with as soon as possible. Back then, we were often surprised and humbled when some patients recovered. Today, too many patients don’t even get a chance. Doctors and nurses are too quick to give up hope.

Back then, ethics was easily understood. We didn’t ever cause or hasten death. We protected our patients’ privacy and rights. We were prohibited from lying or covering up mistakes. We assumed that everyone had “quality of life”; our mission was to improve it, not judge it.

Medical treatment was withdrawn when it became futile or excessively burdensome for the patient — not for society. Food and water was never referred to as “artificial” even when it was delivered through a tube. Doctor and nurses knew that removing food and water from a non-dying person was as much euthanasia as a lethal injection.

“Vegetable” was a pejorative term that was never used in front of patients or their families. And suicide was a tragedy to be prevented, not an alleged constitutional right to be assisted by doctor and nurses.

Today we have ethics committees developing futility guidelines to overrule patients and/or their families even when they want treatment continued. We have three states with legal assisted suicide. We have even non-brain dead organ donation policies (called non-heartbeating organ donation or donation after cardiac death). Some ethicists even argue that we should drop the dead donor rule.

We see living wills and other advance directives with check-offs for even basic medical care and for incapacitated conditions like being unable to regularly recognize relatives. We are willing to sacrifice living human beings at the earliest stages of development to fund research for cures for conditions like Parkinson’s rather than promote research on ethical and effective adult stem cell therapies.

We are inspired by the Special Olympics but support abortion for birth defects. We now talk about a newborn child as another carbon footprint instead of as a blessing and sacred responsibility.

I could go on and on but I think you get the idea.

Death panels are not the overwrought fantasy of right-wing nut cases. Real “death panels” are already at work. They have been created by apathy, misplaced sympathy, a skewed view of tolerance and an inordinate fear of a less than perfect life. Death panels? In the famous words of the comic strip character Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Nancy Valko is president of Missouri Nurses for Life and a spokeswoman for the National Association of Pro-life Nurses.

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