We just passed the year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic. Healthcare workers have been saving lives and comforting the dying one breathing tube at a time. We have been working double and triple shifts, we’ve cried as we have lost patients and comforted families, and we have been called heroes. And now, for some reason, legislation to enact physician-assisted death is up for discussion: H.B. No. 6425, An Act Concerning Aid In Dying For Terminally Ill Patients.
As someone who works within a healthcare setting, I would like to know who in our hospitals is asking for this. I have found that this is not a topic of conversation in an environment where death has become all too common already. I don’t hear anyone in the hospital asking for this bill. Everyone is too busy saving lives.
This bill would legalize physicians to provide medications to be taken to hasten death. We rush to the aid of the suicidal in every other avenue of life, except at the end of life. For some reason, we want to sanction this as “compassionate.” To qualify for this “compassion,” you would have to have a terminal diagnosis and a prognosis of six months or less. That is the very same criteria one needs to qualify for hospice care in America. Hospice is a proven and respectable discipline in the medical care system to palliate pain and increase comfort at the end of life.
When it comes to hospice awareness and use, Connecticut falls behind most other states and U.S. territories. Over the past three years we have not crept above the bottom seven in hospice use, a far cry from our days as the first state to ever have a hospice in America!
Hospice has been proven to increase quality of life and even increase length of prognosis. Hospice provides nursing care under the supervision of two medical doctors. It provides social worker support and spiritual support. Hospice provides bereavement to the family for the 13 months after death. It provides volunteers or pet therapy for companionship. Some hospice organizations can provide a hospice musician, an expressive artist, or massage therapist, and more.
Sadly, hospice services and experiences were generally absent from the public hearing testimony that I witnessed. People talked about “painful deaths” and fears of dying and the autonomy of controlling when they would die. But where hospice services are provided, these issues are mitigated. Pain is reduced. Fears are shared. Hearts are comforted. Family relationships can be restored. Connecticut can and should do better with hospice care before leapfrogging to physician-aided death.
Supporting palliative care and hospice services is the way to proceed if you want to support the dying. Rather than rushing to their aid with medicine to hasten their death, shouldn’t Connecticut move methodically through the already established medical care spectrum?
Passing this bill would change medical care in Connecticut by undermining the established healthcare system. It ignores the existence and efficacy of hospice comfort care. The goal of hospice care is neither to postpone nor to hasten death, but rather to offer comfort and support throughout the process.
Physician-assisted death is anti-science because it ignores numerous ways in which hospice care can address social isolation, distress, existential anxiety, pain management, and even suicidal ideation! It ignores the proven reliability of hospice care to improve quality of life. Physician-assisted death can also be seen as anti-healthcare because it ignores the reality of an entire wing of the medical care spectrum and the interventions offered in comfort care.
The need to support the terminally ill is with us. Do not deceive yourself into thinking that we have already done our best to care for the dying. If we jump to physician-assisted death, we reject the science that says hospice makes a difference. Rather than overlooking the science and rushing to legalize suicide, I suggest we should be rushing to the aid of the terminally ill and supporting them in their dying process. That is literally the difference between life and death.
The Rev. Daniel Warriner of Rocky Hill is an ordained minister. He was a hospice chaplain for seven years and is now Chaplain at UConn Health. His views are his own.