Assisted Suicide: Nurses in the Line of Fire

Nancy Valko

Nancy Valko

This article was published by Nancy Valko on her blog on November 5, 2015

By Nancy Valko

Years 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”. (click on link and click PDF to read the full text)

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

Link to the full article.