Seriously ill patients near the end of life who stop eating and drinking make an ethical and legal decision to hasten death, says Craig Klugman, chair of the department of health sciences at DePaul University in Chicago.
Voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED) is legal in every state for the terminally ill. According to Klugman, seriously ill adults of sound mind should have the freedom to make decisions about their care at the end of life.
“While assisted suicide is only legal in a small number of states, rational suicide is legal everywhere,” Klugman told Life Matters Media. “This is not the same as removing artificial nutrition or a hydration feeding tube; a person stops ingesting food and liquid by mouth.”
Klugman said the process is fairly painless, and after a couple days the patient will cease to feel hunger pains and become drowsy. “We know this from studies of individuals on hunger strikes,” he added. “Choosing not to eat or drink does not mean a person rejects comfort care such as pain control, chewing on ice chips, and moisturizing the lips, skin and other tissues that can be uncomfortable as they dry out.” Patients die of dehydration, not starvation.
Loretta Downs, past president of the Chicago End-of-Life Care Coalition and founder of Chrysalis End-of-Life Inspirations, maintains that stopping eating and drinking is a natural behavior. “Every living thing stops taking in nutrition near the end– animals, plants, people. A person who is dying will often lose their appetite,” she said. “It is an important behavior because the patient still has control.”
Downs urges families of dying patients to remember that better care is often less care. “Loved ones often provide comfort food and drink during life, but at the end patients may become nauseous from the smell of food,” she said.
According to a 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers determined VSED often results in “good” deaths. According to the survey of more than 300 Oregon hospice nurses, most deaths from voluntary refusal of food and fluids were peaceful, with little suffering. Only 8 percent of patients were thought to have had a poor quality of death. One in eight patients whose outcome was known resumed eating and drinking, most often because of thirst or pressure from family members.
Counselors with Colorado-based Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group working to enhance patient rights at the end of life, facilitate discussions about VSED with willing patients across the country.
“The patient needs to be clear about what he or she wants, and let the family know. The process can be peaceful and comfortable, especially if hospice is on board,” said Dr. Judy Neall, medical director of Compassion & Choices’ end of life consultation program. Neall said about 20 percent of patients Compassion & Choices counsels each year about hastening death are VSED patients.
“What can make patients feel uncomfortable during the process is if family or friends provide some food or water, because then the body doesn’t know what to do,” Neall offered.
The simplicity of VSED helps discourage patients from attempting illegal, and more dangerous, efforts that quicken death, Klugman added. “When chosen with a support system in place, VSED can be a responsible, rational, compassionate, and painless way to take control of one’s end of life that does not involve extreme measures, like guns or poisons, or run the risk of implicating someone else in an illegal activity.”