Is It Ever Okay for a Nurse to Help End a Patient’s Life?
In the United States, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are easily a couple of the most controversial topics concerning professional health care. Defined as “the act or practice of killing someone who is very sick or injured in order to prevent any more suffering,” euthanasia is completely illegal throughout the entire United States. Physician-assisted suicide, on the other hand, is currently legal in California, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Unlike euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide does not involve the physician actively ending a patient’s life. Instead, the means of committing suicide are made available to certain patients once they express the desire to end their own life.
As you probably already know, the official positions of professional nursing organizations in the United States are not very supportive of nurses participating in euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, regardless of the circumstances. The American Nurses Association (ANA), for instance, has a position statement that explicitly prohibits nurses from participating in physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. They believe that nurse involvement in either practice would violate “the ethical traditions and goals of the profession, and its covenant with society.” The ANA expands on this position, stating that nurses must “provide humane, comprehensive, and compassionate care that respects the rights of patients but upholds the standards of the profession in the presence of chronic, debilitating illness and at end-of-life.”
Now, whether or not American nurses are allowed to actively participate in the process of ending a patient’s life isn’t up for debate; it’s already quite clear that they cannot. The real questions are: should certain patients be assisted with the act of ending their lives, and if so, should nurses be a part of the process? Obviously, there are no clear-cut answers for either of these questions, and there are strong arguments on both sides of these issues. However, for several reasons, which I’ll discuss in more detail below, I personally believe that certain patients should have access to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, and I believe that nurses should have some involvement in both of these processes.
Ethically, I don’t see anything wrong with medical professionals acting to end the lives of certain patients who no longer want to live. For me, self-determination is extremely important, and I believe that people should be allowed to choose how to live, and in certain situations, they should be able to choose how to die as well. When terminally ill and suffering, for instance, patients should have the right to end their lives on their own terms. Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide make it easier for patients like these to die with dignity while minimizing their suffering. While the common argument that the legalization of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide could lead to the abuse of these options is valid, there’s little evidence to support that this has happened where these practices have been made legal. In Oregon, for example, less than 1,000 patients have died via physician-assisted suicide since the Death with Dignity Act was passed nearly 20 years ago.
To answer the question of whether or not nurses should play a part in euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, it’s necessary to consider the roles and responsibilities of the average nurse working in patient care. Assessment, of course, is one of the major responsibilities that nurses have, and accurate assessment data is one of the things that all members of the health-care team rely on when making major patient-related decisions. Providing care and ensuring the comfort of patients is another major nursing responsibility, and doing these things well can really influence how a patient feels, regardless of their prognosis. Finally, comforting and educating patients’ family members is another vital part of nursing, especially for nurses involved in hospice programs. When a patient is considering euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, nursing essentials, like skilled assessment and compassionate care, are more important than ever! Nurses are often able to ensure the comfort of patients and their families better than other health-care professionals, which is why barring them from participating in euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide is a mistake.
What are your views on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide? Do you believe that these options should be available to certain patients in the United States? If so, what role, if any, do you believe nurses should play in the process of a patient ending their life? We’re especially interested in hearing from nurses who have experience with end-of-life care, so be sure to leave a comment below if you’ve worked in the home-health-care setting or as a hospice nurse!