Somerville's latest deserves ridicule and censure

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Margaret Somerville's latest and repeated misinformation deserves censure.

If there’s one thing you have to admire about Margo Somerville, Catholic Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia, it’s her persistence in the face of being called out for misrepresenting facts about assisted dying. She’s at it again.

Today in the Sydney Morning Herald, Somerville was quoted spruiking her credentials via a recent publication in the peer-reviewed Journal of Palliative Care.1 Since I study the professional literature, I’m aware of said article, which was published several weeks ago. It's a shocker.

The authority bias

Somerville shows herself to again to not care much for the full facts. She seems more comfortable with calling on the ‘authority bias’: advancing her credentials as a “Professor of Bioethics” along with nine “international counterparts” in the authorship of said paper.

I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow analysis of how the JPC article skilfully employs reassuringly professional tones to stake a wholly one-sided and shockingly ill-informed stance against assisted dying law reform.

A very telling example of misinformation

Let’s look at just one very telling example: the statistics that the authors quote about non-voluntary euthanasia (NVE) rates in Belgium and the Netherlands. NVE is a doctor’s act of hastening a patient’s death without a current request from the patient. The authors say that:

“Administration of lethal drugs without patient request occurred in 1.7% of all deaths in the Flanders region of Belgium alone and 0.2% of all deaths in the Netherlands.”

Are these figures correct? Yes indeed they are... as at the date of the cited sources. However, they are just cherry-picked tidbits from a larger and very different smorgasboard of evidence.

A throbbing great falsehood with warts

Do the figures mean what the authors say they mean? In no uncertain terms, absolutely and incontrovertibly not.

The authors don’t just coyly suggest, imply or impute that those NVE rates are caused by the legalisation of assisted dying, they directly claim it. Right in front the statistics, they state categorically that:

“Allowing voluntary euthanasia has led to non-voluntary euthanasia.”

Let’s put this the politest way we can: that’s a throbbing great falsehood with warts on it. The authors would have known this if they’d paid attention to published research facts beyond their own opinions.

Comprehensively ignoring peer-reviewed facts

Had the paper’s authors (and the supposed peer reviewers) actually known much about the subject matter, they wouldn’t have referred to those figures, because they’re massively unhelpful to the case the authors attempt to prosecute. Here are three central published facts about the case:

Fact 1: Before the Netherlands’ euthanasia Act came into effect, the NVE rate was 0.7%. Then in the next research round with the Act in place it had dropped to 0.5%, and the round after that, to 0.2%. The last is the figure the authors quote as evidence that “VE leads to NVE”, despite the fact that the rate had massively dropped, not risen.

Fact 2: Before Belgium’s euthanasia Act came into effect, the NVE rate was 3.2% [typo 3.5% corrected]. Then in the next research round with the Act in place it had dropped to 1.7%, the figure the authors quote. Again, the rate had massively dropped, not risen.

Fact 3: The rate of NVE in the United Kingdom was researched around the same time as the later Dutch figures, and found to be 0.3%.2 The UK has never had an assisted dying law, so the 0.3% NVE rate, which is higher than the Dutch 0.2% rate the authors quote, can't have been caused by one.

So, these three key published facts — known to most of us with an interest in lawful assisted dying — squarely contradict the authors' VE-causing-NVE claim. It's at the very least astonishing and inexcusable that all the numerous authors and peer reviewers of this “scholarly” article either didn’t know, or “overlooked”, them.

Indeed, despite holding one of the world’s largest scholarly libraries on published assisted dying research, I know of no study that establishes a VE-to-NVE link. All the evidence is contrary.

Not the first time

We could perhaps be a little forgiving if the authors just got a statistic wrong. After all, we're all human. But there are ten authors, plus peer reviewers. And there’s the egregious offence the authors committed in making an unequivocal but false claim about the data. Did none of them know what they were talking about or bother to check?

In this case I’m wholly unforgiving. That's because I’ve called Somerville out multiple times before for misrepresenting data, including for misrepresenting Belgian and Dutch NVE data precisely as she does again in this JPC article. We’ve even publicly exchanged words about it via the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal. It’s not like she simply didn’t know.

I’ve also called Somerville out for wrongly claiming that Dutch Minister of Health Dr Els Borst regretted the euthanasia law; and wrongly claiming the Dutch elderly go to German hospitals and nursing homes for healthcare for fear of being euthanased in the Netherlands, including that NVE actually does occur in German nursing homes, despite, as Somerville notes, “their strict prohibition on euthanasia”.

This rubbish deserves censure and ridicule

While I argue strongly that different views about assisted dying law reform are welcome in a robust democracy, repeatedly spreading such egregious misinformation about assisted dying is an embarrassment to and unworthy of scholarly attribution to professorship. Such rubbish deserves to be rejected, censured and ridiculed.

 

References

  1. Sprung, CL, Somerville, MA, Radbruch, L, Collet, NS, Duttge, G, Piva, JP, Antonelli, M, Sulmasy, DP, Lemmens, W & Ely, EW 2018, 'Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia: Emerging issues from a global perspective', Journal of Palliative Care.
  2. Seale, C 2009, 'End-of-life decisions in the UK involving medical practitioners', Palliat Med, 23(3), pp. 198-204.

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