Our editorial last Thursday on Sen. Greg Hinkle's opposition to physician-assisted suicide in Montana generated a flood of feedback in letters, e-mails and online comments, proving once more that this is one of the more contentious debates facing the 2011 Legislature. Voices in support of banning aid in dying point to both potential and documented abuses of the practice, especially when it comes to elderly patients.
Elder abuse also happens to be the focus of a release today from Compassion & Choices, the national group pushing for physician-assisted suicide legislation. The notice comes in advance of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day June 15 and touches on the very concerns Hinkle and other critics have expressed. Compassion & Choices poses an interesting counter-question to those afraid that aid in dying is in fact a form of elder abuse: Isn't allowing a patient to suffer extreme pain at the end of life also a form of abuse?
When an 85-year old man like William Bergman, dying of mesothelioma, moans in pain with every breath, as his daughter pleads with doctors to prescribe more effective pain medication, that is elder abuse. Compassion & Choices won a court judgment to that effect, the first of its kind, in 2001.
When an 82-year-old woman like Margaret Furlong receives full cardio-pulmonary resuscitation in violation of her Advance Directive, and endures ten days of intensive care despite squeezing her son’s hand to communicate her desire to have her hands untied and machines discontinued, that is elder abuse. Yet when Compassion & Choices helped bring this case as elder abuse and failure to honor an advance directive, it was thrown out of court.
When medical providers encourage irrational hope in endless rounds of chemotherapy for advanced, end-stage cancer, that research indicates are unlikely to extend life but sure to degrade its quality, that’s elder abuse.