I read an article recently on the negative impact that euthanasia has on the people who perform it. As the article explained, in places where euthanasia is legal, doctors “are trained to heal, but they are routinely confronted with ending life rather than saving it.” This can lead to moral distress and eventually burnout. Another quote from the article further explained: “You can’t devote your life to one purpose and flagrantly violate that on demand without paying a high psychological price. . . . Can you imagine, four years earlier a dog was hit by a car. . . .
Wait, what was that? Did that say dog?
Yes, that’s right. The article I’m referring to comes from a veterinary magazine’s website, dvm360.com. As I read the article I started to imagine what would happen if I rewrote every quote to apply to physicians instead of veterinarians. For example, think about this quote that originally spoke to the psychological impact on veterinarians who perform euthanasia: “I was recently reminded that (medicine) is one of the toughest professions because it is the only one that deals with elective killing. And it’s a wake-up call on why depression, anxiety, turnover, substance abuse and sometimes, in really extreme cases, suicide, is present in the (medical) profession.”
Euthanasia is not an easy task, and in our whole discussion about who has a right to what, we have completely overlooked who it is that we are asking to commit this act. Health care professionals, whether they are physicians, nurses, pharmacists, or anyone else, chose their profession because they are committed to saving lives. While I know there are some who want to participate in euthanasia, a much greater number will not feel comfortable working in an environment where they are required to kill (or watch someone else kill) the people in their care.
Reflecting on the impact that suicide can have on the people present, I am reminded of my own time working as a distress centre volunteer. At this distress centre, most callers were looking for someone to help them avoid suicide, but every once in a while, there would be a caller who intended to carry through on his or her plans. In these situations, the volunteer on the phone would contact his or her supervisor, explain the situation, and continue to try to talk the caller out of completing suicide. If it became clear that there was nothing left to do to help the caller, the supervisor would decide when it was time to part ways.
When I first heard this protocol, I did not understand why it was the supervisor’s job to decide when to end the call — after all, wasn’t I the one who had just built a rapport with the caller? Shouldn’t this be my decision?
However, after experiencing one such call myself, I realized what a gift it was to have the support of my supervisor. No human being should ever have to choose between hanging up that phone and listening to someone else take their own life. In my own experience, I know that it would have been impossible for me to hang up the phone.
Although my experience with a caller who was intent on completing suicide was several years ago, I still carry the feelings of helplessness and failure that were imprinted on me that night. I can only imagine how much worse it would be for me if I had stayed on the line longer, and I am grateful that the Distress Centre cared enough about my psychological well-being to remove me from that situation.
And so my reflections return to people who have chosen to serve in health care. Here we are, forcing an impossible choice on them: either walk away from someone that you have built a relationship with, or stay and feel like your heart is being torn from your body. Do whatever you want, but make sure you’re ready to go to work again after your coffee break.
This is cruel and unusual punishment for people who have dedicated their lives to the care of others, and I am convinced it will burn out anyone who decides to stay in Canada long enough to be exposed to this choice.
Taking the life of another human being is not a simple task. In their eagerness to open the door to euthanasia and assisted suicide, proponents of these practices seem to have forgotten the people who will have to respond to requests for death. Our health care professionals deserve to be protected so they can continue to provide compassionate care to the most vulnerable among us. Protecting their consciences is necessary to ensure that all Canadians receive the care they deserve.
Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.