Ethical nursing practice includes the prevention or delay of death. In very rare cases, nurses retrieve people from death. When death is inevitable, they prepare the person for the best possible death. Once death has occurred, nurses carry out rituals of care on the body. Nurses and doctors do not always agree on death practices. Nurses see themselves as more accepting of death; its naturalness and inevitability. They also see themselves as advocates for people to die in the way they choose, if at all possible.
Nurses and doctors do not carry out death practices in isolation. Professional standards guide individual practice. Legal structures exist to monitor and sanction their work. The media helps to form public opinion regarding nurses' and doctors' practices.
Public surveys suggest that nurses are more highly respected than doctors. Unfortunately, respect for the person and their work is not the same thing as respect for the knowledge they are assumed to hold. While nurses may think they are the experts on death, this view is not generally shared by doctors or members of the public. Nor is it shared by the creators of legal structures regarding death practices. Hence there is a danger that legal and social judgements about nurses' death practices are based on ill-informed assumptions about nurses' knowledge and morality.
Another kind of death expertise also exists. It develops in people who have participated in the dying and death of a loved one. Many of them support the reform of professional, legal and social structures to ensure that people can die in their own chosen way and with as little suffering as possible. Three possible reforms, with that end in mind, are currently attracting attention. One provides for a doctor to assist people to kill themselves. Another proposes that the person give their consent for a doctor to kill them with, for example, a lethal injection. The third contentious reform involved the practice of "terminal sedation", whereby a person is rendered unconscious and pain-free through sedation, until death occurs. These practices are already occuring in other parts of the world.
Some New Zealand nurses would support these reforms. Some would adamantly oppose them. Regardless of what position nurses take, what stares us in the face is the recent conviction of a New Zealand nurse, Lesley Martin, for carrying out the attempted murder of her mother. This was a high profile case, not least of all because Martin published an account of the experience, but also because she sought to create publicity for the legalisation of euthanasia. The media coverage of the case bears careful analysis because it is an example of how nurses and nursing are constructed in the media. But there are deeper issues to address here. Lesley Martin's trial and conviction provide a poignant and tragic backdrop to an issue that must focus New Zealand nurses' minds and energy. First, we have to grasp a nettle or two.
Grasping the nettle
Euthanasia practices do occur in New Zealand. This has been borne out by nurses' stories and by research. It is common knowledge about an uncommon act, eg a doctor or nurse injecting morphine into a terminally ill patient, knowing that there are two likely effects--pain relief and death. Nurses and doctors carry out other practices at the end of life, where one of the known effects is the death of the patient. These practices occur in a context where legal guidance and control exist, for example, the Crimes Act 1961, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and the Health Practitioners' Competence Assurance Act 2003. Two sets of problems arise. First, why do these practices occur, given the legal sanctions against them? Second, why are so few cases referred to the courts? And is...