Respiratory nurse and Nursing Times blogger Janelle Yorke on why the assisted suicide debate is pertinent to respiratory nursing
As many of you may know, the RCN has recently released a consult on assisted suicide. Assisted suicide has received much media attention of late. It is a highly debatable topic with strong and emotive views on both sides. The issues surrounding the assisted suicide debate are pertinent to respiratory nursing as many patients with chronic respiratory disease will inevitably succumb to the illness. Unfortunately for some, this may be a painful and drawn out process.
Many respiratory nurses already provide end of life care. Some of you have undoubtedly been faced with ethical dilemmas throughout the course of providing this care.
There has been a number of high profile cases recently reported where family members have helped those who wish to end their life to travel oversees to receive life terminating treatment. Assisted suicide is illegal in the UK. As yet, no family member has been prosecuted for participating in the process of assisting their loved one to travel to such facilities (e.g. Dignitas in Zurich). However, should a nurse assist a patient to travel to such a destination the law and professional nursing bodies may take a different stance. Some would argue that the law should be changed so that those who demand the right to assisted suicide, and their families, do not need to go through the distress of travelling to another country.
Others claim that better provision for quality palliative care would help negate individuals from seeking assisted suicide. However, this does not cover instances where a person is not ‘terminally ill’, but find their life so intolerable that they consciously make the decision to end it. Such was the case with the 23 year old rugby player Daniel James who was paralysed during a match and, with the aid of his parents and family friend, travelled to Dignitas clinic to end his life. This was Daniel’s final act of self-determination. But this needs to be weighed against legislation that is there to protect the vulnerable, those who may feel such a burden to their family that it would be better if they were dead. The dilemma deepens.
Will legislation in the UK ever change to permit assisted suicide? Where does the line between providing palliative care begin to blur with hastening someone’s death? Is this a euphemism for euthanasia or even assisted suicide? All these questions are alive in many conversations among health care professionals. Therefore, the recently released RCN consultation paper on assisted suicide is extremely welcomed. However the conversation that takes place has to reflect the reality of practice and this can only come from the nurses who care for, and face the pain and distress of the dying every day. I would strongly encourage respiratory nurses to read and send a response to the consult. Nursing is a key component of end of life care and it is vitally important that we make our voices heard with such sensitive debates. However, it is important to approach the debate from a professional perspective rather than one’s own personal view point. This may be more easily said than done.