Assisted dying (AD)

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More Dutch evidence contradicts Margaret Somerville's 'suicide contagion' theory

I’ve previously published an extensive analysis of how Professor Margaret Somerville, of the Catholic Notre Dame University of Australia, cherry-picked her way through select data that seemed to be (but wasn’t) consistent with her ‘contagion’ theory from assisted dying to the general suicide rate. I provided ample evidence from lawful jurisdictions that comprehensively contradicts her claim. I also published the summary in ABC Religion & Ethics.

Yet Somerville still says despite extensive real-world experience to the contrary, that “I believe that my [suicide contagion] statement will prove to be correct.”

She and her Catholic colleagues still hold onto several tenuous threads of information that might — just might — appear consistent with her theory, despite the truckloads of evidence to the contrary.

One of those tenuous threads is that the general suicide rate in the Netherlands has increased from 2008, around the same time that use of the Dutch euthanasia law also increased. (The general suicide rate previously fell as assisted dying rates increased.)

I reported official Dutch government statistics and expert financial reports to show that the unemployment rate explains most (80%) of the variation in the Dutch general suicide rate since 1960, and that the Netherlands was particularly hard-hit by the global financial crisis from 2008 — whereas neighbouring Belgium wasn’t and its suicide rate dropped as assisted dying numbers increased. Unemployment in hard times is a known significant risk factor for suicide.

Now, a detailed and peer-reviewed analysis of Dutch data recently published in the Netherlands Journal of Medicine throws more mud in the face of Somerville’s theory.1

The research looked at the Dutch assisted death and general suicide rates from 2002 through 2014, separately for each of the five Euthanasia Commission reporting regions.

Headline results of the averages for 2002–14 are shown in Figure 1.

netherlandsfiveregionmap.jpgFigure 1: The average assisted death rate (and suicide rate) as a percent of all deaths by region, 2002-14
Source: Koopman & Putter 2016

As you can see, Region 3, which includes Amsterdam, had by far the greatest assisted death rate (3.4%), compared with the other four regions (1.7% – 2.0%). Yet Region 3’s suicide rate at 1.2% was the same as Region 5, while Region 5 had only half the assisted death rate of Region 3 (1.7% vs 3.4%). (The authors, unusually, expressed suicides as a percentage of all deaths.)

It's the opposite of Somerville’s theory which says that Region 3’s general suicide rate should be much higher (not lower, as it is) than Region 5’s.

Those figures are the average for 2002 – 14, and it’s possible that the picture is a little different for the more recent years in which the assisted dying rate is higher.

To answer that question, I’ve retrieved official Dutch Government data and calculated the assisted dying rates and general suicide rates for 2014, the most recent year for which all the data is available. I’ve also calculated the general suicide rate per 100,000 population, the more usual way of reporting and comparing suicide statistics. The results are shown in Figure 2.

dutchregionsveandsuicide2014.gifFigure 2: The Dutch assisted death rate and general suicide rate by region for 2014
Sources: Euthanasia Commission annual reports, Dutch Government statistics

While region 1 (the far north) has the lowest assisted death rate (3.2% of all deaths), it has by far the highest general suicide rate (13.6 per 100k population).

The latest Dutch regional data shows the opposite of Margaret Somerville’s ‘suicide contagion’ theory, adding to the already extensive evidence against it.Conversely, region 3 (which includes Amsterdam) has by a very large factor the highest assisted dying rate (6.0% of all deaths), yet it has the second-lowest general suicide rate (10.3 per 100k population).

This latest empirical evidence is consistent with other extensive evidence I’ve published showing an inverse — or no — relationship between assisted dying rates and general suicide rates.

The question is whether Margaret Somerville and her Catholic friends will pay the slightest attention, or continue to rely on invalid, cherry-picked morsels of data that they think support their theory, but don’t.

 

References

  1. Koopman, JJE & Putter, H 2016, 'Regional variation in the practice of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in the Netherlands', Netherlands Journal of Medicine, 74(9), pp. 387-394.

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Yet more research contradicts Prof. Margaret Somerville's Dutch NVE claim

I’ve criticised Catholic ethicist Professor Margaret Somerville in the past for promoting misinformation about assisted dying. One of her favourite stories is about supposed non-voluntary euthanasia (NVE) ‘contagion’ from voluntary euthanasia laws.

NVE is where a doctor deliberately hastens the death of a patient without a current explicit request from the patient.

Somerville claims that elderly Dutch citizens fear NVE — a slippery slope claim previously promoted by the Vatican. She stated that:

Old Dutch citizens are seeking admission to nursing homes and hospitals in Germany, which has a strict prohibition against euthanasia because of its Nazi past, and they're too frightened to go into nursing homes or hospitals in the Netherlands.”

She made the claim with certainty and without qualification.

She also stated it under the credentials of Professor, yet has offered not a shred of sound, verifiable evidence. That's unscholarly.

Her claim is premised on two false beliefs, that:

  1. The Dutch assisted dying law causes NVE —extrapolated to mean that elderly Dutch are therefore fearful of NVE in the Netherlands; and
  2. Because assisted dying is illegal in Germany, NVE doesn’t happen there — extrapolated to mean that elderly Dutch are confident in German healthcare and seek it in preference to their own.

Belief 1 is soundly contradicted by the evidence. Researchers have found small but significant rates of NVE in every country they’ve studied (though that to date hasn’t included Germany). They’ve also found that the rates of NVE in the Netherlands and Belgium have dropped (not risen) significantly since their assisted dying laws came into effect in 2002.

Now, new research comprehensively knocks Belief 2 off its perch, too.

In a pilot study just published in the German Medical Weekly, a team led by Professor Karl Beine of Witten/Herdecke University in Germany found that around 3.1% of doctors and nurses surveyed were aware of deliberately hastened deaths (which is illegal in Germany) in the past twelve months, and that 2.4% of them administered it themselves.

A new study has found that of German nurses and doctors who had intentionally administered life-ending drugs to patients (which is against the law), 40% of them had not been asked to do so by the patient: non-voluntary euthanasia. Further, of those who administered it themselves, 40% hadn’t been asked for it by the patient. That's NVE.

While previous evidence strongly suggested that NVE would occur in Germany as everywhere else, this study now factually establishes that it does.

The study authors concluded that “illegal intentional life-ending acts were administered by physicians and nurses in all healthcare areas [hospitals and nursing homes] under investigation.”

So much for Somerville’s second premise.

Now both premises of her misinformed NVE story are soundly contradicted by empirical research evidence.


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In the previous video a claim by Catholic Professor of Ethics Margaret Somerville was rebutted: that the Dutch and Belgians seek health care in Germany because they fear being killed by their own doctors and without being asked. In this video, she furthers her bizarre claim by referring to Dutch and Belgian non-voluntary euthanasia rates as 'proof' of her border-crossing healthcare thesis.

However, her cherry-picked statistic establishes nothing, whereas her claim is contradicted by robust research, which I discuss in this video.

It's unclear why Professor Somerville seems to be unaware of or ignores readily-available yet contradictory evidence of central importance to her claim.

This 'non-voluntary slippery slope' claim is another one that's popular amongst campaigners against assisted dying.

 

Transcript

Neil Francis: In the last video, we established as false, Professor Margaret Somerville’s absurd claim of the Dutch going to Germany for health care because they feared being killed by their doctors. But she goes on.

Margaret Somerville: In actual fact they’ve got good reason to fear that, uh, there’s a minimum of, a minimum of 500 cases a year, of doctors who administer euthanasia to people in the Netherlands, where it’s legal, and the patient does not know they’re being given euthanasia, and has not consented to it. Some reports put the figure as high as 2000 cases a year.

Neil Francis: And she makes a similar case for Belgium. So let’s look at the empirical evidence.

Neil Francis: What she’s referring to is non-voluntary euthanasia, or NVE. It occurs in every jurisdiction around the world. A study published in 2003 found these rates. You’ll notice that Italy had the lowest and Belgium the highest NVE rates. And at the time of this study, which countries had legalised assisted dying?

Neil Francis: Switzerland had since 1942, and the Netherlands since 1982. But none of the others had. So the Swiss and Dutch NVE rates, with assisted dying laws, were lower than Denmark’s, without one. And the higher Belgian rate wasn’t caused by an assisted dying law, because none existed at the time.

Neil Francis: But did the Belgian and Dutch NVE rates go up when each country legalised assisted dying by statute in 2002? Here’s what happened in Belgium: the rate didn’t go up — it went down, and the drop is highly statistically significant.

Neil Francis: And in the time since Professor Somerville made her misleading claim, it’s remained lower.

Neil Francis: And here’s what happened in the Netherlands. This rate before the Act is around 1,000 cases a year, and this one after the Act is around 500, the rate that Professor Somerville refers to in her claim as “the minimum”. What she failed to mention is that since statutory legalisation of assisted dying, the Dutch NVE rate dropped, not risen, and to a similar level as the UK, the world’s gold standard for palliative care, and which has never had an assisted dying law.

Neil Francis: And since Professor Somerville made her misleading claim, it’s dropped even further.

Neil Francis: If Professor believes that she has verifiable empirical evidence to back up her claims, let her produce it for examination. Until then, her non-voluntary euthanasia “slippery slope ”is nothing more than fear-mongering innuendo.

Visit the YouTube page.

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Catholic Professor of Ethics Margaret Somerville claimed in a University address that elderly Dutch people are fearful of being euthanased in nursing homes and hospitals and instead travel to Germany for health care.

She provided no sources or evidence for her claim.

Dr Els Borst, the Minister resonsible for the Netherlands' euthanasia law, reveals these claims about 'fear of being killed' in nursing homes as 'absolute lies.' Dutch Senator Heleen Dupuis confirms that it is untrue.

The claim is popular amongst opponents of assisted dying law reform. It raises questions about how a Professor of Ethics came to state is as authoriative fact.

Transcript

Neil Francis: Former Dutch Minister for Health, Dr Els Borst, shared an experience her Government had with the Vatican about assisted dying

Els Borst: Their journal, the Osservatore Romano, was writing, was publishing articles saying that in the Netherlands, people who went to a nursing home or an old people's home, didn't dare to do that any more because they were so afraid they would be killed by their doctor after a week or so.

Els Borst: And we were so angry about this, absolute lies, that we went together, to the Vatican, and we told them that if they didn't stop that sort of lies in their journal, that we would stop diplomatic relations with Vatican City.

Els Borst: We had an ambassador there, and my colleague the Minister for Foreign Affairs said, "I'll withdraw that ambassador and he'll never return."

Else Borst: And then it stopped.

Neil Francis: Well perhaps the Vatican did, but here's Catholic Professor of Ethics, Margaret Somerville.

Margaret Somerville: Old Dutch citizens are seeking admission to nursing homes and hospitals in Germany, which has a strict prohibition against euthanasia because of its Nazi past, and they're too frightened to go into nursing homes or hospitals in the Netherlands.

Neil Francis: I asked Dutch Senator, Professor Heleen Dupuis, about the claim.

Heleen Dupuis: OK, stupid. It is simply not true.

Neil Francis: It's time to stop spreading such fearmongering scuttlebutt.

Visit the YouTube page.

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Catholic Professor of Ethics Margaret Somerville claimed in a University address that the Minister who brought in the Netherlands' euthanasia Act (that's Dr Els Borst), said that doing so had been "a serious mistake."

In an offence against scholalry standards, Prof. Somerville did not check her facts with the primary source before making the claim. I know, because I did. I interviewed Dr Borst in Utrecht: Prof. Somerville had not contacted Dr Borst, and Dr Borst stated clearly and without hestitation that she still thought it a good law.

Prof. Somerville instead chose to repeat scuttlebut circulating amongst assisted dying law reform opponents.

Transcript

Neil Francis: Before her death, I visited Dr Els Borst in Utrecht, to seek her current views about the Netherlands' euthanasia Act, which she introduced into the Dutch parliament, and which had been in effect for many years.

Voice of Neil Francis (interview): What are your feellings about the law?

Els Borst: I'm still very happy with it. I think we did the right thing there, also in the way we formulated it.

Neil Francis: But despite the clarity of Dr Borst's continued support for the law, Professor Somerville claimed the opposite in an address at the University of Tasmania.

Margaret Somerville: The Minister who was responsible for shepherding through the legislation that legalised euthanasia in the Netherlands admitted publicly that doing so had been a serious mistake."

Neil Francis: Oh dear. I showed Dr Borst the video of Professor Somerville's claim, and here's her response.

Els Borst: I know that story. I'd like to meet this Margaret S... what's her name?

Vice of Neil Francis: Margaret Somerville

Els Borst: ... well maybe she wouldn't listen anyway.

Neil Francis: The public have a right to ask why Professor Somerville chose to spread scuttlebut, instead of checking her sources in a proper, scholarly fashion.

Visit the YouTube page.

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The IAHPC website home page.

In response to my previous post about the religious basis of organised opposition to assisted dying, Dr Katherine Pettus, Advocacy and Human Rights Officer at the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care (IAHPC), tweeted:

Twitter “#Catholic church @Pontifex believes all life is sacred&supports #PalliativeCare and use of strong #pain medicines” — Dr Katherine Pettus

Her just-published IAHPC ‘Concept Note’ railing against assisted dying,1 and summarised on the European Association of Palliative Care’s (EAPC) website,2confirms and amplifies precisely the point I made.

Now you’d think that an organisation with a name like ‘International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care’ would be a neutral organisation representing the world profession irrespective of the faith or personal spiritual beliefs of its members.

But you’d be quite wrong.

Nothing but Catholic doctrine

The IAHPC's musings extensively cite several Popes as the authorities on the subject of — and exclusively against — assisted dying. They expressly use the term "Table of authorities," which includes Popes. And who else?

Precisely nobody: no other faith, and no impartial scientific research, is cited. Just Popes.

She also writes:

IAHPC wishes to encourage our partners to express clear support for faith based teachings on palliative care.”

It is important to clarify this misinformation [about ‘stealth euthanasia’] with the authoritative teachings of the Church.”

Hospice has always been faith based.” [As if ‘the way it’s always been’ is a sound argument for ‘the way it always should be.’ Perhaps we shouldn’t have moved from serfdom to democracy?]

The Catholic Church began the medieval hospice movement, and can lead the modern palliative care movement.” [They curiously neglect to mention that the palliative care (not hospice) movement rose from Anglican roots in the UK, helpfully confirming that this broadcast is primarily about promoting Catholic religion, not palliative care.]
 

Shameless self-promotion

But Dr Pettus and the IAHPC’s Concept Note don’t stop there.

The Word [sic] Day of the Sick (WDS) is a good opportunity to support faith based healthcare organizations.”

Contact your parish to see if you can hold a small event…”

Contact your local Catholic health care provider director to find out about…”

Make an announcement at your local church…”

Gosh, I must have been mistaken. I thought World Day of the Sick was about… the sick!?

But Dr Pettus and the IAHPC commandeer it to shamelessly further the Catholic religious agenda amongst palliative care service providers.

An unexamined conflict of interest

It's deeply disturbing that someone holding the position of “Advocacy and Human Rights Officer” considers the beliefs and values only of the service provider (who she represents) in promoting the world day about sick people (who her organisation serves).

Palliative care organisations repeatedly state that they aim to deliver patient-centred care. But the world palliative care peak body's self-adoration exposes the worst of them: taking the opportunity of a day supposedly for the values and needs of sick patients, and using it to glorify their own particular (Catholic) religious tenets which are to be lauded over those of the patients they serve.

Most of the world is not Catholic, and in Australia at least, most Catholics disagree with Vatican doctrine on assisted dying.

How astonishing then to dictate that Catholic doctrine must prevail over everyone, including Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists and others. Dr Pettus and the IAHPC comprehensively fail to demonstrate any awareness or reflection of potential conflicts of interest in serving people of different faiths and beliefs.

Incomprehensible arrogance

There is little issue with the Catholic Church directing its own willing adherents as to how they might end their days.

But for one religious institution to seek to impose its views on everyone worldwide is incomprehensibly arrogant. I guess it's no surprise then that a Catholic Bishop recently admitted — at a Royal Commission inquiry into the extensive, ongoing and horrific abuse of children under the Church's pastoral care — that the Catholic Church is a "law unto itself".

It would be helpful if the Holy See reflected on the principle: is it legitimate for another faith to force its own views on the Vatican or on Catholic patients?

It would also be helpful if the International Association of Hopsice and Palliative Care reflected on respecting and serving the wider community rather than behaving like a subsidiary of the Holy See.

Conclusion

The IAHPC has provided its own unequivocal proof that it is religious conservatism behind organised opposition to assisted dying, with the Catholic Church at the front of the pack.

You’ll understand why I tweeted in response to Dr Pettus:

Twitter.@kpettus @EAPCOnlus Thanks for confirming @Pontifex arrogance. Not once did you mention PATIENT’S PoV. All about YOU.” — Neil Francis

 

- - -

And furthermore

Parading ignorance

The IAHPC refers repeatedly to the treatment of ‘pain’ in its stand against assisted dying law reform. But pain is not amongst the leading reasons for assisted dying (it is a much less common reason). Key reasons are the inability to participate in any of life’s enjoyable activities, loss of independence and loss of dignity.

I guess the curious focus on ‘pain’ is understandable though, because the Vatican is very fond of the doctrine of double effect (DDE) — which the IAHPC specifically notes in Catholic Catechism 2279 although not by its DDE name, but rather bizarrely as “a special form of disinterested charity.”

The DDE posits that it’s OK for a doctor to administer high doses of analgesics to treat pain, even if an unintended consequence is to hasten the patient’s death. The Catholic Church treats this doctrine as uncontroversial, even though it remains controversial amongst other ethicists and philosophers: the principle says “it’s quite OK for a doctor to kill her patient, as long as she doesn’t really mean to.”

I would commend Dr Pettus and the IAHPC to do some proper research and understand the subject area more competently before pontificating (yes, intended meaning) further.

The smokescreen argument

The IAHPC also states that:

No country or state should consider the legalization of euthanasia or PAS until it ensures universal access to palliative care services.”

That’s purely a smokescreen argument for two reasons. Firstly, the Concept Note also argues that assisted dying:

both violate[s] the bond of trust within the profession of medicine, and undermine[s] the integrity of the profession and the dedication to safeguard human life.”

Setting aside the empirical falsehood of the statement, it furnishes the IAHPC a 'get-out-of-jail-free' card if and when palliative care becomes ‘universally’ available: it’s utterly irrelevant if that goal is reached because there’s a more fundamental objection behind it.

Secondly, it's an established fact that palliative care can’t always help, even when the best services are available. ‘Universal’ access won’t fix all the problems.

All these faux arguments are typical and common from religious opponents of assisted dying.

 

References

  1. International Association for Hospice & Palliative Care 2017, Concept note: Palliative care organisations support World Day of the Sick (WDS), IAHPC, viewed 11 Feb 2017, https://hospicecare.com/uploads/2017/1/concept-note-world-day-of-the-sick-2017.docx.
  2. Pettus, K 2017, Palliative care: A special form of disinterested charity, EAPC, viewed 11 Feb 2017, https://eapcnet.wordpress.com/2017/02/10/palliative-care-a-special-form-of-disinterested-charity/.

 


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Assisted dying rates in Dutch-speaking cultures (orange bars) are much higher than elsewhere.

In this whitepaper, Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) primary empirical data on assisted dying is analysed — including with new and advanced approaches — to provide fresh insights into contemporary practices. Investigation reveals that the assisted dying rate in Dutch-speaking cultures appears to be uniquely higher than in other cultures irrespective of the permissiveness of the legislative framework, yet is still practiced conservatively.

Download a full copy of the Whitepaper here: PDF (648Kb).

Summary

This new compilation and unique analysis of primary research data from statutory authorities and the peer-reviewed literature provides fresh insights into assisted dying practice in Benelux, including:

  1. Rates of assisted dying in the Netherlands and Belgium have followed an expected sigmoid curve, now beginning to level out.
  2. Several factors have contributed to the higher increase in the Netherlands rate, including recovery from a suppression of cases immediately following statutory reform, a rise in cancer diagnoses, and an increase in granting of assisted dying through new visiting teams launched in 2012.
  3. Both Netherlands and Belgium doctors demonstrate caution if not conservatism when assessing assisted dying requests.
  4. Despite most assisted dying occurring in cases of cancer, fewer than one in ten cancer deaths in the Netherlands and one in twenty in Belgium is an assisted death.
  5. Other conditions such as degenerative neurological, pulmonary and circulatory illnesses each account for a very small proportion of the increase in cases since legalisation in Benelux.
  6. The assisted dying rate in dementia and other mental illness is very low despite controversy around—and a tiny rise in granting of—such cases.
  7. The hypothesis that females or the elderly would be ‘vulnerable’ to assisted dying law is contradicted by the data.
  8. The rate of non-voluntary euthanasia has decreased significantly in both the Netherlands and Belgium since assisted dying was permitted by statute.
  9. Assisted dying rates in Dutch-speaking cultures are significantly higher than in non-Dutch cultures, seemingly unrelated to the permissiveness of the jurisdiction’s legal framework.

 

beneluxratessmall.gif
Benelux country reported assisted dying rates (as a percentage of all deaths)
as at 2014. The three countries have similar assisted dying laws.
 

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The AMA fails to represent the breadth of physicians perspectives around assisted dying.

This informative Go Gentle Australia video explains why the Australian Medical Association is out of touch with the wider Australian doctor community. Around a third of Australian doctors are members of the AMA.

The AMA currently holds a position of hostility towards assisted dying law reform, as it did against abortion before that was formally legalised. The doctors in this video explain how the AMA does not represent their views on assisted dying in restricted circumstances.

Visit the YouTube page.

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BMA House in Tavistock Square, London, home to the British Medical Association since 1925.

The British Medical Association (BMA), in the latest incarnation of its policy on assisted dying (AD), insists that AD must not be legalised in the UK. I argue that its indefensible stance reveals ignorance, incoherence and hubris. It fails to respect the true range of views amongst UK doctors. I expose the comprehensive rot.

The BMA categorically states in its July 2016 policy update on assisted dying:

“The BMA policy … insists that voluntary euthanasia [and] physician-assisted suicide should not be made legal in the UK.” — British Medical Association1

BMA comprehensively out of touch

The BMA claims to represent UK doctors—though fewer than half are members. What is the empirical evidence for UK doctor attitudes toward assisted dying?

In a 2009 survey,2 35% said that AD should definitely or probably be legalised. The same study also found that 35% of UK doctors said AD should definitely not be lawful even in cases of terminal illness. That is, the stance of just 35% of UK doctors was identical to the BMA’s—insisting that it not be lawful, while an equal proportion thought AD could be legalised. “Greater religiosity” was the strongest correlative factor with opposition to lawful AD.

Indeed, numerous studies have found a substantial minority of UK doctors in favour of lawful AD, including results approaching equality with opponents.3 Even a survey commissioned by the UK Catholic Medical Association in 2003 found around 25% of UK doctors in favour of AD and who would practice it if legalised.4

UK doctor support for AD, then, is substantial and hardly restricted to a mere handful of fringe-dwelling medical crackpots.

Ignorant and disrespectful BMA stance

It is untenable that the BMA unilaterally ‘respects’ the views of 35% of UK doctors at the same time as expressly disrespecting the views of another significant cohort. Perhaps as in general politics, its power base is more heavily populated with religious souls: those who have a deeper interest in shaping what options others do and don’t have?

Appalling and trivialised ‘rationale’

Let’s take a look at the five moribund reasons the BMA offers in defense of its institutional opposition to AD and see how they use flapdoodle, fudge, fiction, fear-mongering, flip-flop and hubris to ‘advance’ their position.

“Current BMA policy firmly opposes assisted dying for the following [five] key reasons:”

1. Permitting assisted dying for some could put vulnerable people at risk of harm.

Flapdoodle. Firstly, as I have explained before, the “vulnerable at risk” argument is a rhetorical sham. People ‘at risk’ are by definition ‘vulnerable,’ and would still be so if we wore yellow socks on Wednesdays or outlawed pizza. It has nothing to do with AD being legalised or not.

Fudge. Secondly, the BMA ignores repeated reviews published in the professional literature indicating that supposed harms have not eventuated in jurisdictions with lawful assisted dying. Indeed, the quality of medical practice has improved.

Flip-flop. And thirdly, if ‘risk of harm’ was a sufficient condition to deny patients a particular option, we must equally ban the right to refuse life-saving medical treatment (no matter how unwanted or burdensome) because greedy relatives eyeing off the estate might convince the dying patient to refuse. It’s incoherent to oppose assisted dying, but to support refusal of treatment (as the BMA does), in the face of this identical possibility.

2. Such a change would be contrary to the ethics of clinical practice, as the principal purpose of medicine is to improve patients’ quality of life, not to foreshorten it.

Fudge. Medicine has a number of primary purposes. Relief of suffering is one.5 That may come into conflict with another purpose, “the avoidance of premature death and the pursuit of a peaceful death” (which itself has internal conflicts). A dying individual may herself believe that an AD would not be premature, and whose peaceful nature is vastly preferable to continued intolerable and unrelievable suffering.

3. Legalising assisted dying could weaken society's prohibition on killing and undermine the safeguards against non-voluntary euthanasia. Society could embark on a 'slippery slope' with undesirable consequences.

Fear-mongering. Non-voluntary euthanasia (NVE) is currently illegal. It remains illegal even when AD is legalised. The BMA therefore incoherently conjectures that NVE doesn’t occur while it’s illegal (before AD legalisation), but might occur while it is still illegal (after AD legalisation).

Fiction. There are no current ‘safeguards’ against NVE as the BMA statement implies. It is practiced in secret. There are no statutory requirements or reporting standards as there are for AD (where legal). Research clearly demonstrates that NVE occurs everywhere, including the UK. Further, the rate of NVE has significantly decreased in the Netherlands and Belgium since their AD statutes came into effect.

4. For most patients, effective and high quality palliative care can effectively alleviate distressing symptoms associated with the dying process and allay patients' fears.

Flapdoodle. The BMA says “effective … palliative care can effectively alleviate…”: another circular, self-‘proving’ argument.

Hubris. The BMA acknowledges here—as unarguably established in the professional literature—that palliative care can’t help everyone. And that’s precisely what assisted dying law reform is about: for people that palliative care can’t help. But the BMA brushes them under the carpet.

5. Only a minority of people want to end their lives. The rules for the majority should not be changed to accommodate a small group.

Flip-flop. In ‘reasons’ 1 and 3 above, the BMA speculates that too many people will die if AD is legalised. Here is it arguing that too few will. Which is it? Too many or too few? The argument also ignores the international evidence that dying individuals (and their loved ones) experience profound relief merely from knowing that AD is available, even if they don’t pursue it. That itself is good palliative care.

Hubris. And if “not changing the majority's rules to accommodate a small group” were a gold standard as the BMA argues, then there would be no leglisation to (a) ensure facilities access to people with a disability, (b) outlaw discrimination on the basis of race or religion, or (c) allow same-sex marriage: all enshrined in law in the UK.

Hubris argues for ignoring the BMA itself

If, as the BMA argues, we should override the wishes of a group on the basis of its small size, it’s pertinent to consider the size of the UK doctor population: around 0.4% of the total. By comparison, in jurisdictions where AD is legal, around 0.3% (Oregon) to 3.8% (Netherlands) ultimately choose an assisted death.

If we are to ignore 0.3%–3.8% of the population because it’s ‘too small,’ we must equally ignore 0.4% of it. This, by the BMA’s own argument, would be reason to force it to support AD because that’s what the majority (UK population) favour. After all, “the rules for the majority should not be changed to accommodate a small group [of doctors].”

Of course most of us recognise, unlike the BMA, that this is not a ‘popularity contest.’ A stance of neutrality would demonstrate respect for deeply-held views across the spectrum.

Conclusion

The British Medical Association demonstrates profound ignorance about the available evidence, and about UK doctor attitudes. It resorts to fear-mongering speculation, fudge, fiction, flapdoodle, flip-flop and hubris to maintain its indefensible opposition to assisted dying.

The BMA’s stance does a great disservice to the British people. It’s an embarrassment to professional doctors regardless of their stance on assisted dying. The policy deserves to be entirely scrapped, and one of neutrality adopted in its place.

 

References

  1. British Medical Association 2016, Physician-assisted dying: BMA policy, viewed 26 Sep 2016, https://www.bma.org.uk/advice/employment/ethics/ethics-a-to-z/physician-assisted-dying.
  2. Seale, C 2009, 'Legalisation of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide: survey of doctors' attitudes', Palliative Medicine, 23(3), Apr, pp. 205-212.
  3. McCormack, R, Clifford, M & Conroy, M 2011, 'Attitudes of UK doctors towards euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide: a systematic literature review', Palliative Medicine, 26(1), pp. 23-33.
  4. Catholic Medical Quarterly 2003, 'Euthanasia and assisted suicide: Results of survey of doctors attitudes', Catholic Medical Quarterly, May, pp. 1-3.
  5. Hastings Center Report 1996, 'The goals of medicine. Setting new priorities', The Hastings Center Report, 26(6), pp. S1-27.
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Palliative Care Australia's position statement on assisted dying.

I’ve written previously about palliative care specialists trying to filibuster assisted dying law reform. In this F file, I reveal how Australia’s peak body for palliative care (PC), Palliative Care Australia (PCA), segues from a state of ignorance to its own filibuster that would stall assisted dying choice.

First up, let me say that I hold deep admiration for the generally excellent services PC specialists provide at the bedside. I believe that PC deserves strong support and good funding. The peak body’s leadership in regard to its stance on assisted dying, however, is of a dramatically lower calibre.

Revised policy statement

In PCA’s latest incarnation of its Position Statement on ‘Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide’,1 the organisation says that:

“Public discussion and policy development on issues related to euthanasia and physician assisted suicide should be informed by research. There is insufficient research into euthanasia and physician assisted suicide.” — Palliative Care Australia, Position Statement

One can only agree wholeheartedly with the first sentence. Of course public discussion and policy development should be informed by research wherever possible.

The filibuster

And there follows the filibuster rub — PCA unequivocally claims that there is insufficient research. The logical consequence of PCA's juxtaposition is that we ought to muzzle public discussion and policy development because, PCA alleges, there is insufficient research to inform it.

Certainly in terms of Australia there are only a handful of published studies into attitudes and practices. But assisted dying is illegal in Australia. There are very substantial ethical and legal issues when it comes to conducting research.

Who is PCA to claim "insufficient research"?

PCA is the peak body for PC, a specific discipline within medicine that represents (well-paid) doctors. It runs a staffed office in Fyshwick ACT, and is overseen by a Board and Executive. It has a key purpose of lobbying in the halls of power in the Federal Parliament, and, presumably on the basis of the statement above, has a goal of ensuring that government PC policy (and funding) is informed by research. You'd think it might have some resources and connections to go looking for some research evidence.

A revealing comparison

In comparison, I conduct my assisted dying law reform work on a completely pro-bono basis, as a single individual, in my spare time. I have a formal literature collection on end-of-life decision making, including assisted dying, of currently over six thousand articles. I’m not talking about mere opinion published in the media: I’m talking about articles published in professional journals and in official government and agency reports.

I just ran a quick check across my database, looking for items specifically in respect of assisted dying (not medical or palliative care in general) in the Netherlands, Belgium and Oregon, where assisted dying has been legal for some time. Here’s what I found.

In respect of assisted dying the Netherlands I hold 366 journal articles and 25 official reports. For Belgium, I hold 152 journal articles and 11 official reports. And for Oregon I hold 144 journal articles and 32 official reports.

That’s a total of 662 journal articles and 68 official reports in respect of three lawful assisted dying jurisdictions. And that doesn’t count any holdings of book chapters, conference papers and the like. The journal article count will be somewhat overstated because a minority of journal papers are about more than one lawful jurisdiction (e.g. the Netherlands and Belgium). So let’s estimate that downwards to, say, a mere 400 journal articles.

That’s an abundance of evidence from and review about jurisdictions where assisted dying is legal. Could we always know more about assisted dying? Sure.

Double standards when it comes to evidence

We could also know a lot more about PC. I recently asked PCA for a simple but critical headline statistic — one you’d think was necessary to inform policy about PC resources and funding: “what proportion of Australians who experience a non-sudden death (i.e. deaths where PC might be relevant) actually receive PC?”

PCA kindly responded, but the answer in a nutshell was “we don’t know.”

But I wouldn't suggest for a moment that we muzzle “public discussion and policy development on issues related to PC” because the peak body hasn't done enough research to calculate (or even estimate) a fundamental policy-informing statistic.

Conclusion

The Australian community would be better served if PCA acquainted itself with the extensive available literature on assisted dying in lawful jurisdictions (as well as headline PC statistics), and dropped its inappropriate filibuster.

 

References

  1. Palliative Care Australia 2016, Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide: Position statement, viewed 1 Sep 2016, <http://palliativecare.org.au/download/2448/>.
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