Suicide prevention or suicide assistance: The tragic story of Brittany Maynard

November 12, 2014 09:00 AM

By Nancy Valko, RN, ALNC

I recently wrote an article, “I Lost My Daughter to Suicide: A Nurse’s Response to Brittany Maynard’s Campaign for Assisted Suicide,”1 hoping that there was a small chance of convincing her or other vulnerable people that suicide (assisted or unassisted) is never the answer to any problem. 

Now we know that Brittany did kill herself by assisted suicide on November 1 with her family and new husband watching. 

Was it worth trying to save Brittany and other suicidal people from suicide? Will legalizing assisted suicide lead to a better and more compassionate society? 

WHY TRY TO SAVE A SUICIDAL PERSON? 

In 2009, after my beautiful, 30-year-old daughter Marie died by suicide using a technique she learned from visiting suicide/assisted suicide websites and reading the book Final Exit, a fellow medical colleague remarked to me that he even questioned why we tried so hard to save suicide attempters when they “were just going to do it again anyway.”  

I ignored the massive insensitivity of that remark and told him that studies have shown that only 10 percent (or less in some studies) of suicidal people ever go on to complete a suicide.”2 

I also told him that I don’t regret one minute of the 16 years I spent trying to save my daughter Marie from substance abuse and despair. And although I was often frustrated, heartbroken, and even angry at times during those years, I never stopped loving her unconditionally. 

When Marie died, some people asked if I was relieved because Marie “was at peace and no longer suffering.” Of course not! The worst possible outcome for Marie and the rest of her family and friends was suicide. Although it was hard to watch Marie suffer with her demons, I would have spent the rest of my life trying to save her from suicide. 

Personally and professionally as a nurse for 45 years, I have encountered many suicidal people. Some were terminally ill. But I found that even the few who were insistent about killing themselves revealed great fear and ambivalence. The will to live is so strong, but these suicidal people were being overwhelmed with desperation, even when they were physically healthy. 

I recall reading one woman’s story about how she attempted suicide multiple times but stopped when her brother said that he would stop her from suicide every time and any way he could. She said that his faith in the value of her life—even when she didn’t have it herself—convinced her to finally stop trying to kill herself. Obviously, “No” can be a lifesaving word. 

As Brittany Maynard admitted herself, she really didn’t want to die but, even though she still felt relatively well while planning her assisted suicide, she was afraid of possible future pain and debilitation. 

The Oregon she moved to because of its law legalizing assisted suicide was the first state to pass such a law because it was sold to the public by groups like Compassion and Choices as a last resort to help terminally ill people end their lives because of intractable pain. 

Ironically, the reality in Oregon now is that the three most frequently mentioned end-of-life concerns cited by people using the law are not about pain but rather “loss of autonomy,” “decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable,” and “loss of dignity.”3 There are lots of older people who could make the same complaints about their lives. 

Where was Brittany’s assisting doctor when she died and was she even told about the so-called “safeguards” in Oregon’s law such as referrals for psychological or psychiatric counseling before she died? We will never know, especially because Oregon statistics and reporting on assisted suicide depend on secrecy and the assisting doctors’ willingness to self-report such cases.4 

ASSISTED SUICIDE IS STILL SUICIDE 

The media coverage has been intense ever since Brittany Maynard announced her impending assisted suicide. The mainstream media fed the feeding frenzy by portraying Brittany’s situation as a tragic love story only relieved by Brittany’s stepping forward to act as a spokesperson for Compassion and Choices’ campaign to legalize assisted suicide throughout the US. 

Criticism of assisted suicide itself was subdued in media outlets that rarely even reported the AMA’s, ANA’s, and other professional organizations’ positions against physician-assisted suicide. Some outlets even followed Compassion and Choices’ preference for using “death with dignity” terminology rather than the usual term “physician-assisted suicide.” Suicide prevention websites and crisis help lines were never mentioned as a resource for any viewers who might be contemplating suicide themselves. 

According to the World Health Organization’s publication Preventing Suicide—A Resource for Media Professionals,the media should “avoid language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems” and “provide information about where to seek help” among other recommendations. None of that was done in the weeks of reporting when Brittany Maynard was standing on a virtual window ledge while so many people shouted their support for her “right” to jump. 

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) does not keep statistics on assisted suicide, but according to Oregon’s annual reports on assisted suicide, there have been 688 assisted suicides since assisted suicide was legalized there in 1997.6  

In the meantime, more than 38,000 suicides were reported in the US by the CDC in 2010, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. The CDC also states that “suicide costs society approximately $34.6 billion a year in combined medical and work loss costs” and “the average suicide costs $1,061,170.” According to the CDC, “More than one million people reported making a suicide attempt in the past year” with “More than two million adults reported thinking about suicide in the past year.”7 

It seems obvious that the health crisis here is the staggeringly large and increasing suicide rate,8 not the lack of enough legalized assisted suicide. 

Assisted suicide has now been legalized in five states: Three states (Oregon, Vermont, and Washington) by legislation and in New Mexico and Montana by court rulings still under dispute. Compassion and Choices has repeatedly fought to legalize assisted suicide in the other 46 states but has lost in public referendums and state legislatures. 

Will Brittany Maynard’s tragic story be Compassion and Choices’ self-described “tipping point” in their decades-long quest to convince the public to demand that healthcare professionals supply lethal overdoses to people who think their lives are (or will be) too terrible and undignified? 

As a society, we may think we deserve to decide when our own lives are not worth living and that we then have a right to be dispatched by a medical person. We may think that we deserve a life unencumbered by our own or anyone else’s disability or terminal illness. 

But if we do embrace such attitudes, I fear will we soon learn that the damage done to ourselves, our vulnerable fellow human beings, and our society is incalculable. 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] “I Lost My Daughter to Suicide: A Nurse’s Response to Brittany Maynard’s Campaign for Assisted Suicide.” The Public Discourse. Oct 24, 2014. http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2014/10/13979/

[2] “Suicide and suicidal behavior.” Medline Plus. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001554.htm

[3] “Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act-2013.” Oregon Public Health. http://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Documents/year16.pdf. 

[4] “Death with Dignity Act.” Oregon Public Health Division. http://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Pages/index.aspx.

[5] “Preventing Suicide-A Resource for Media Professionals.” World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/resource_media.pdf.

[6] “Death with Dignity Act.” Latest annual report. Oregon Public Health Division. http://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Documents/year16.pdf. 

[7]“Suicide: Consequences—Suicide and Suicide Attempts Take an Enormous Toll on Society.” CDC. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/consequences.html

[8] “Facts and Figures.” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. https://www.afsp.org/understanding-suicide/facts-and-figures. 

Nancy Valko has been an RN for 45 years and is currently working as a legal nurse consultant. She is a spokesperson for the National Association of Pro-life Nurses (www.nursesforlife.org) and contributing editor forVoices, a publication of Women for Faith and Family (www.wf-f.org). She has been speaking, writing, and testifying on pro-life issues for over 30 years. Nancy lives in St. Louis with her husband Kevin and has four wonderful children and three wonderful grandchildren. 

This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at http://www.nursesforlife.org/uploads/November_8.pdf

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