In February 2015, the Supreme court of Canada struck down the ban on physician assisted death and directed the government to prepare the appropriate legislation. As a retired nurse with an interest in the moral work of nurses, I am especially concerned about the huge expectations and moral burden that physician assisted death places on health care professionals and institutions.
In its submission to the parliamentary committee reviewing the matter, the Canadian Nurses Association pointed out that assisted death is not just an act. Rather, it is a relational care process. Nurses work with physicians in end of life care assessing patient’s needs and providing nursing care, including emotional support, pain relief and other comfort measures. In their relationships with patients, nurses get to know and advocate for patients’ wishes, needs and concerns. They also support families of dying patients.
As nursing and other health professional regulatory bodies scramble to develop guidelines and standards for their role in assisted death, little has been said publicly about how nurses will be involved. However, Dr. W., who recently assisted a patient’s death in BC, stated in her interview on CBC/The Current that: “in the future, it would be lovely to have a nurse who is excellent at intravenous lines.” The troublesome comment reflects an emphasis on the procedure rather than a nurse’s care and support of the patient and family.
Physician assisted death is more than a legal matter or medical procedure. It is a moral issue that affects us all. It calls for legal, moral and professional parameters and safeguards, along with ethical, psychological and spiritual support for health professionals involved in the process.