Assisted Suicide and the Corruption of Palliative Care

By Smith, Wesley J. | The Human Life Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Assisted Suicide and the Corruption of Palliative Care


Smith, Wesley J., The Human Life Review


For the past two decades, euthanasia/assisted-suicide ideologues have worked overtime to conflate palliative care-the medical alleviation of pain and other distressing symptoms of serious illness-with intentionally ending the life of the patient. The movement's first target was the hospice, a specialized form of care for the dying created forty years ago in the United Kingdom by the late, great medical humanitarian Dame Cicely Saunders. Determined to treat what she called the "total pain" of dying patients, Saunders' great innovation was to bring a multidisciplinary team to the task of ensuring that their physical pain, existential suffering, spiritual needs, and mental health are all properly attended.

Saunders believed that suicide prevention, when needed, is an essential part of the package, crucial to fulfilling a hospice's call to value the lives and intrinsic dignity of each patient until the moment of natural death. Indeed, when I was trained as a hospice volunteer, my instructor pounded into my head the importance of reporting to the hospice team any suicide threats or yearnings my patient might express so they could initiate proper intervention. As a consequence of this philosophy, many patients who might have killed themselves were later very glad still to be alive to get the most of the time they had remaining.

But assisted-suicide advocates wish to transform hospice into "hemlock" (as one advocate once put it), a facilitator of suicide rather than a preventer. They believe that access to lethal prescriptions should be considered merely another menu item available for dying patients (and ultimately others) "to control the timing and manner of their deaths."

Toward this end, advocates often point to a statistic involving assisted-suicide deaths in Oregon. According to the state, approximately 86 percent of people who died by swallowing poisonous overdoses under the Oregon law were receiving hospice care at the time they committed assisted suicide. Promoters of such "aid in dying" claim that this proves dying patients need the additional choice of a lethal prescription to ensure a "good death" if hospice care does not suffice.

But there is another way to look at it. What advocates don't mention-and this is an issue about which the state bureaucrats seem utterly indifferent-is that most of Oregon's assisted suicides were facilitated in some way by people affiliated with the assisted-suicide advocacy group Compassion and Choices (formerly the Hemlock Society), either as end-of-life "counselors" or as prescribing doctors after the patient's own physician refused to write a lethal prescription. This means that the patients in the hospice who committed assisted suicide under Oregon's law most likely did not receive suicide prevention-either because the hospice team was not alerted to their patient's suicidal desire or perhaps the Oregon law has effectively short-circuited the prevention response by hospice professionals. In other words, rather than showing the need to expand hospice "services," Oregon demonstrates how assisted suicide actually interferes with the proper delivery of hospice services-at least as the hospice was envisioned by Saunders.

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