On the avoidance of assisted dying 'bullshit'

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Patricia Flowers calls Margaret Somerville's arugments 'bullshit' on national television. Photo: ABC

Last week, Mr Xavier Symons published a defence of Professor Margaret Somerville, whose arguments against assisted dying were called ‘bullshit’ by Patricia Flowers on the ABC’s Q&A program. Symons and Somerville are colleagues at the Institute for Ethics and Society at the Catholic Notre Dame University of Australia.

Mr Symons made an important point: that a law about restricted self-choice for assisted dying is in no way comparable to the Nazi Germany euthanasia (or more correctly, eugenics) programme. While Prof. Somerville agrees that such comparisons are invalid, she nevertheless often mentions Nazi Germany as a ‘question’ when debating assisted dying. That’s a bit of a fudge.

And Mr Symons, in his defence of Prof. Somerville, offers some fudges of his own. While Dr Iain Brassington has offered a cool philosophical examination of Mr Symons’ opinion piece in a Journal of Medical Ethics blog, I’ll provide more of an evidential analysis.

Wrong on Dutch law and practice

Mr Symons said that euthanasia was legalised in the Netherlands in 2002. While technically that may be true, it's misleading. Assisted dying was actually made lawful in the Netherlands in 1982, after considerable debate and a number of court cases, when the Board of Procurators-General (the highest prosecutorial authority) formalised a set of conditions under which doctors would not be prosecuted for helping a patient die.

In practice, wider physician participation commenced in 1984 when the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) issued its own guidelines for clinical practice, based on the Procurators-General ruling, and grew to more than a thousand cases a year by the late 1990s.

It was in 2002 — when the Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide (Review Procedures) Act came into effect — that the Dutch law on assisted dying changed from regulatory to statutory.

Mr Symons also claimed that since 2002, the “Dutch legislation [has] changed several times.” That’s not true: in fact, not one word of the Act has changed since it came into effect.

Nor has there been a “steady rate of increase” in the Dutch assisted death rate since 2002 “even when there was no legislative change” as he claimed. There has been an increase, but far from ‘steady.’ Rather, it’s a sigmoid (stretched-S) curve with very little initial increase, then increasing, and then levelling out again. It’s a pattern typical of human behaviour adoption, and has occurred in both Belgium and the Netherlands.

Selective Euro-evidence

Mr Symons also claimed “significant evidence from Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg” for his argued slippery slope. Yet he quotes percentages for only the Netherlands, correctly noting that assisted deaths increased from 1.3% of all deaths in 2002 to 3.7% in 2015.

Mr Symons doesn’t mention that:

  • the Dutch assisted dying rate was lower for a number of years after 2002 than before — as physicians and the public were still getting to grips with the new Act;
  • the Netherlands’ assisted dying rate dropped between 2014 and 2015;
  • the rate in Belgium (1.8% in 2015) is half the Netherlands’;
  • the rate in the Flanders (Dutch) north of Belgium (2.5% in 2015) is higher than in the Wallonia (French) south (0.87%), suggesting that higher rates may be a characteristic of Dutch culture;
  • the rate in Luxembourg, with very similar legislation, is a tiny one twentieth of the Dutch rate — 0.18% in 2014 (the most recent year of available data); or that
  • there is no evidence to date of the rate increasing in Luxembourg.
     

Selective North American evidence

While Mr Symons reports the Dutch rate as a percentage of all deaths, he reports his only other figures (for Oregon) as raw counts: rising from 16 in 1998 (before which assisted dying was entirely illegal) to 132 in 2015. (Actually, the final figure for 2015 was 135 cases.) What he fails to mention is that the Oregon rate in 2015 was 0.38% of all deaths, just one tenth of the Dutch rate. That is, the percentage is far less ‘impressive’ to his thesis and raises questions about ‘inevitable slippery slopes.’

The increase is hardly surprising given that when conduct is made newly lawful, only a few people might pursue it in its first year, with more people pursuing it seventeen years later. Even then, one hundred and thirty-five cases out of nearly thirty-six thousand deaths is hardly a “normalisation,” as Mr Symons argues.

He also argues that Quebec’s initial figures are “alarming,” without reporting the rate as a percentage of all deaths. Data from the first year (2015–16) indicates a rate of 0.74%, slightly lower than French-speaking Wallonia in 2015 (0.87%). (Half-way through the 2015–16 period, Canada’s Federal Parliament also passed an assisted dying law.)

The latest comparative data

The latest data on assisted death rates in Benelux and North America is shown in Figure 1. As I explain in one of the most detailed comparative analyses of lawful assisted dying practice conducted to date, it is likely that the higher rates are associated with Dutch culture.

adrates7jurisdictions.gifFigure 1: Assisted dying in Benelux and North America as a percentage of all deaths

Notes: Dutch cultures appear in orange. Flanders is the northern Dutch, and Wallonia the southern French, ‘half’ of Belgium.
Sources: Government statistics offices and assisted dying authority reports; Quebec, CBC News

The case of Vermont

In the USA state of Vermont (with an Oregon-like Act since 2013), a small number of people (38) have been prescribed lethal medication in the first three years. (Data is not available by year.) Assuming for the sake of argument that all of them took the medication (while Oregon and Washington data indicates that a third or more don’t), that would equate to an assisted dying rate of around 0.27% of all deaths as an annual average for 2013­–15.

Don’t mention Switzerland

Switzerland is perhaps the most ‘inconvenient’ case for slippery slope hypotheses, which might explain why assisted dying opponents usually avoid mentioning it. It has the world’s oldest assisted suicide law, in effect since 1942. It is also the least prescriptive: the only specific statutory requirement is that any assistance rendered must not be for reasons of self-interest. That’s it.

Surely a law in effect for 73 years and devoid of all the complex requirements of others would be the foundation for an out-of-control assisted dying rate, much higher than the Netherlands at 3.7%?

It isn’t. In 2015, the rate for Swiss-resident assisted deaths was 1.4%. The rate including foreigners — in other words, with a global population of potential ‘slippery slope candidates’ — was 1.7%. That’s less than half the Dutch rate.

Conclusion

To summarise, the lawful assisted dying rate varies widely between cultures, currently by a factor of twenty. Yet there’s one thing consistent amongst them all: the most common reason for pursuing an assisted death is advanced cancer.

Ultimately, the only thing Mr Symons’ argument establishes is that he prefers to negatively describe any use of a law of which he disapproves as “normalisation,” regardless of its usage rate. If this were not true it would be incumbent on him to nominate a non-zero assisted dying rate that he thinks acceptable, but not “normalised.”

To be sure, I agree with Mr Symons that it’s important to “review the hard facts” around assisted dying.

And yet, when he promised the reader that his “valid slippery slope” argument would be based on “compelling empirical” evidence, he made incorrect or misleading statements, provided cherry-picked morsels of data, and wrapped it all up in a loaded assumption. I think that Patricia Flowers would call that ‘bullshit.’


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