Euthanasia: what the nurses see

Two professors in the School of Nursing at the University of British Columbia have blown apart some of the stereotypes in the euthanasia debate in research published in recent days, and provided startling accounts from nurses who are there to witness the euthanasia deaths of patients.

Barbara Pesut and Sally Thorne conducted research into euthanasia in Canada from the perspective of nurses involved in end-of-life care, including those who participate in euthanasia and those who have chosen to conscientiously object.

Interestingly, they dismissed the stereotypes of pro-euthanasia medical professionals and patients “who heroically conquer suffering, death and the system by taking control of what might otherwise have been a difficult and prolonged dying,” as well as “caricatures of oppositional or religious right-wing persons and institutions who stand in the way of compassion and dignity.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of the research were the nurses’ accounts of euthanasia.  Findings included:

  • conversations with patients and families, “when experienced as meaningful by patients, may help to alleviate the suffering that leads to the request for a medically assisted death. This is particularly true if the suffering has arisen from the sense of isolation.
  • That while euthanasia “is often spoken of as the definitive intervention that ensures control over the alleviation of suffering… [it] can also be chosen as the antidote to a system that fails in compassion or equitable palliative care access.
  • That euthanasia “may seem the perfect solution for rural and remote patients who want a home death but are unable to find sufficient palliative care in their context.”
  • that euthanasia “may seem the best option for patients who do not want to enter what they perceive to be the dehumanizing environments of residential care.”
  • “stories of patients who were not willing to tax their caregivers any longer, particularly if those caregivers sent cues that they were exhausted.”

Alarmingly, the research also found that it was not uncommon for patients to express uncertainty, to question their decision and experience fear at the moment of death, but found it tough to talk about their doubts “when so many have invested time and energy” into planning their death.

The study concluded that there was a need “to plan ways to ensure that inequitable access or lack of caregiving networks do not become the default reasons for requesting a medically assisted death.”

The need to provide adequate end-of-life care before offering the false “choice” of euthanasia is clear. 

It is why 75 per cent of voters in regional Western Australia, where palliative care is limited, want palliative care fixed before the introduction of euthanasia.  This includes 73 per cent of those who describe themselves as “pro-euthanasia.”

It is why the WA Upper House needs to reject this euthanasia bill, and instead hold the government to account to delivering on palliative care.