Nov 03

Prayer vigils and outreach efforts did not fail her. The assisted suicide movement did.

Brittany Maynard was the perfect poster child that movement never had before, short of Hollywood films such as ‘Million Dollar Baby’, ‘You Don’t Know Jack’, ‘Sanctum’, ‘Amore’, and probably others. But those were slick productions, successful as they were in advancing the notion that ‘death with dignity’ was something saleable. They marketed it so well, the idea grew in the public consciousness, among more Americans, that maybe people should be able to have the choice to end their life if they were suffering.

Trouble is, there’s too much wrong with that idea to properly handle quickly enough to reach someone who comes along with a serious diagnosis of a terminal illness and has been stricken to the core with fear. Like Brittany Maynard.

So in the immediate aftermath of this sad but highly publicized story of human vulnerability, suffering, hope and a condition posed as ‘hopelessness’, here are some considerations of friends and colleagues I call on for bioethics stories regularly, who have taken keen interest in the Brittany Maynard story since it first surfaced, but more importantly, in the young woman herself.

Nurse Nancy Valko in The Public Discourse, a week ago:

Groups supporting physician-assisted suicide now call the promotion of Ms. Maynard’s story “a tipping point” in their decades-long push to gain public support for changing laws.

They have needed such a high profile case supporting their cause, because it so profoundly goes against our society’s Judeo-Christian ethic of life.

Society has long insisted that healthcare professionals adhere to the highest standards of ethics, as a protection for society. Without that clear moral compass, it has been said, the physician is the most dangerous man in society. The vulnerability of a sick person, and the inability of society to monitor every healthcare 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.” Erasing the bright line doctors and nurses have drawn for themselves—which separates killing from caring—is a decision fraught with peril, especially for those who are most vulnerable.

As a nurse, I am willing to do anything for my patients—but I will not kill them nor help them kill themselves. In my work with the terminally ill, I have been struck by how rarely such people say anything like, “I want to end my life.” I have seen the few who do express such thoughts become visibly relieved when their concerns and fears are addressed, instead of finding support for the suicide option. I have yet to see such a patient go on to commit suicide.

Valko’s decades-long experience as an acute care nurse, steeped in end-of-life care and palliative care and other issues of medical ethics, gives her far deeper insight and expertise on these issues and the human vulnerabilities involved in them, than agenda driven advocates can access.

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 reduces 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?

Stories like Brittany Maynard’s can feed into a society that is fascinated by tragic love stories, but does not understand how such stories are used as propaganda to promote a dangerous political agenda that can affect us all—and our loved ones.

Personally, I will continue to care for people contemplating suicide or who have made an attempt regardless of their age, condition, or socio-economic status. I reject discrimination when it comes to suicide prevention and care. I hope our nation will do so as well.

Even, and especially, with Brittany Maynard carrying out her plans to end her life  on her terms, at a time of her choosing, for the sake of what she saw as autonomy. The group formerly known as ‘The Hemlock Society’, now known as ‘Compassion and Choices’, claims victory in this assisted suicide.

Advocacy group Compassion & Choices spokesman Sean Crowley on Sunday afternoon said he could not confirm Maynard’s death “in respecting the family’s wishes.”

He added that Maynard “is educating a whole new generation on this issue. She is the most natural spokesperson I have ever heard in my life. The clarity of her message is amazing. She is getting people to consider this issue who haven’t thought of it before. She’s a teacher by trade and, she’s teaching the world.

But what is her death by assisted suicide teaching the world?

Before it happened, noted bioethics expert Wesley J. Smith wrote this (read the whole piece, written while she was still contemplating suicide):

To put it bluntly, whether to legalize physician-prescribed suicide is about much more than Brittany Maynard’s individual circumstances, as tragic and emotionally compelling as that may be.”

Now that her own plight has ended in tragic circumstances of suicide, Smith only said this, for now:

I know that I am supposed to keep quiet and simply offer condolences. Frankly, I doubt her family would want them from me–given how her illness and death were politicized in the cause of using our great empathy for her to demolish laws against doctor-prescribed death and my implacable opposition to that dark agenda.

But, of course, I am saddened. Who wouldn’t be? Her cancer and death, if the report is accurate, are a terrible tragedy. I wish her husband, family, and friends nothing but the best.

Expect suicide advocates to now use her death to stoke emotions even higher around the assisted suicide debate. But emotionalism is the last approach that should be taken in pondering such a radical, culturally transforming agenda and the impact legalization would have and its potential impact on the most weak and vulnerable.

They need our help, everyone’s help, in living natural life to the fullest with the utmost help and companionship for the trial and journey, our help ‘suffering with’ them, otherwise known as true compassion. Not our help in hastening death.

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