Euthanasia

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Update: Margaret Somerville is now Professor of Ethics at the Catholic University of Notre Dame Australia.

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.

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Update: Margaret Somerville is now Professor of Ethics at the Catholic University of Notre Dame Australia.

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.

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Update: Margaret Somerville is now Professor of Ethics at the Catholic University of Notre Dame Australia.

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.

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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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In this interview segment, Dutch Professor Theo Boer self-identifies as a voluntary euthanasia sceptic.

I interviewed Dutch Professor Theo Boer—Social Professor of Ethics at Theological University, Kampen, the Netherlands, and a Dutch Euthanasia Committee ethicist—about the Netherlands' assisted dying law.

He volunteers that prior to joining a Euthanasia Committee he was an assisted dying sceptic, and remains so.

And yet he warmly endorses the Dutch leglislative model as a good one for other jurisdictions to emulate, a position that he says has become more clear with experience.

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Jeanne Smits' completely false statement in LifeSiteNews

Well it didn't take long. Recently I posted a fact-based report card on Dutch euthanasia practice, based on the actual data from the 2015 annual report (and all the earlier reports) of the Dutch Euthanasia Commission. Now, just a few days later, conservative religious opponents have begun publishing completely untrue statements about Dutch euthanasia practice.

Catholic blog LifeSiteNews' 'Paris correspondent' Jeanne Smits has bolted out of the misinformation blocks, assertively and categorically stating in respect of the small increase in number of euthanasia cases from 2014 to 2015, that:

"The rise is mainly due to the increase of euthanasia for demented, elderly people as well as psychiatric patients, two categories that raise even more questions than 'ordinary' euthanasia for untreatable physical pain."

Smits goes on to correctly report that dementia was an underlying factor in 109 of the cases in 2015 (against 81 in 2014) and psychiatric disorders in 56 patients (against 41 in 2014).

The total number of euthanasia cases increased from 5306 in 2014 to 5516 in 2015, an increase of 210 cases. The increase in dementia cases was 28 and in psychiatric disorders was 15. Therefore, underlying dementia accounted for 13% of the increase, and psychiatric disorders 7% of the increase.

Cherry-picking

Smits has cherry-picked just the dementia and psychiatric illness figures and presented them in a way that supports her story arc, painting a bleak picture.

But by no stretch of the imagination does dementia and psychiatric illness account "mainly" for the increase as she categorically states.

What didn't Smits report at all? Cancer: the Netherlands' leading cause of death. In 2015, cancer was the underlying condition in 4000 euthanasia cases, against 3888 in 2014, a rise of 112 cases or 53% of the increase. That compares with dementia at 13% and psychiatric illness at 7% (20% combined), which Smits selectively critiques as a 'sharp rise'.

In no way is Smits' statement true.

No, let's be frank: it's an outright lie. Cancer was the major underlying condition accounting for more than half of the small increase (4%) of cases in 2015.

More evidence refutes the claim

Comparing one years' data with just the preceding years' data can be misleading when the number of observations is low, as it is for dementia and psychiatric illness euthanasia cases. Fortunately, we have data for more than just the one year.

Since 2012 the Euthanasia Commission has consistently published specific figures for dementia and psychiatric illness cases, so we can compare a rise over four years rather than just one. On this basis as a proportion of total 2012 cases, there has been a 17.9% increase in cancer-related cases, a 1.6% increase in dementia cases, and a 1.0% increase in psychiatric illness cases.

Longitudinal data is even more clear than a single year. It unequivocally refutes Smits' silly claim.

Bull is spread

Does Smits' claim matter much? Won't it just slip into oblivion?

No. Michael Haverluck of the conservative Christian paper OneNewsNow has already picked up Smits' article and repeated her claim as gospel. It remains to be seen how many other anti-euthanasia bloggers republish this nonsense.

Unacceptable conduct

In my view, publishing such a categorical yet false statement — even when unintentional — without first properly checking the facts, is unacceptable conduct. The article (and its derivatives) ought to be withdrawn.


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In 2002 the Dutch Euthanasia Act came into effect. Commencing in 2003, the Netherlands Euthanasia Commission has published annual reports of deaths that occur under the Act. It has just published its annual report for the calendar year 2015. The data shows that the Euthanasia Act is working as the Dutch Parliament intended.

Number of assisted death cases

There were 5,516 reported cases of assisted dying in 2015, with 208 cases of patient self-administration and 5,277 cases of doctor administration. This is an overall increase of 4.0% on the 2014 figures (5,306 total cases). Assisted deaths represented 3.9% of all Dutch deaths in 2015.

Trend in assisted dying numbers

Comment has been made in past years about the rate of increase of assisted deaths in the Netherlands. The trend in number of cases of this nature was always likely to be an 'S'-shaped curve, a trend which the 2015 data supports as the annual increases level off (Figure 1) at a small percentage of all deaths.

S-curved assisted dying rateFigure 1: Netherlands assisted dying deaths as a percentage of all deaths

Note: The Netherlands total deaths count for 2015 is not yet published: its value was estimated by extrapolation from previous years.

Figure 2 shows the year-on-year rate of change of assisted dying including a second-order polynomial best-fit trend line which illustrates that the rate of increase has slowed and the overall rate is leveling out.

Netherlands assisted dying rate trendFigure 2: Year-on-year change in the proportion of assisted dying cases

Underlying health conditions

Cancer is by far the greatest underlying health problem affecting those who choose assisted dying in the Netherlands (Figure 3). This is unsurprising since cancer is now the leading cause of death in the Netherlands, accounting for 30% of all deaths.

Netherlands assisetd dying -- underlying illnessesFigure 3: Underlying illnesses of Dutch assisted dying cases (proportion of all deaths)

Notes: Neuro=neurodegenerative diseases, Mental=mental illnesses other than dementia, Multi=multi-functional old-age decline, Other=all other illness types

While cancer accounts for the greatest numeric increase in reported assisted dying cases, other illnesses are increasing as a proportion of cases (Figure 4). Cardiopulmonary illness now underlies around 8% of cases (cardiac pathology is the second leading cause of death in the Netherlands) and neurodegenerative disease around 6% of cases.

Netherlands assisted dying -- Underlying illness proportionsFigure 4: Underlying illnesses of Dutch assisted dying cases (proportion of illnesses)

Multi-functional old-age decline underlies around 3-4% of cases. Untreatable mental illness is a rare health factor in Dutch assisted dying, with dementia present in 1 in 50 assisted deaths (2%) and other mental illness in 1 in 100 deaths (1%) .

Where assistance was rendered

Around 88% of Dutch people would prefer to die in their own home or similar care home, 10% in hospice and around 2% in hospital (Abarshi et al 2009). Those using assisted dying largely achieve these goals (Figure 5).

Netherlands assisted dying -- place of deathFigure 5: Assisted dying place of death (proportion of assisted deaths)

Around 80% of assisted deaths occur in the patient's own home. Since the Euthanasia Act came into effect, the proportion of deaths occurring in hospices and in relative's homes ("other") increased from around 2.5% to 8% (an approximately 5.5% rise), and the proportion of deaths occurring in hospitals decreased from around 11% to 3.5% (an approximately 7.5% drop). There was a slight increase of less than 2% in the proportion of assisted deaths in residential care settings, and no increase in nursing home settings.

The data confirms that assisted dying patients are usually dying in their preferred location and that 'institutionalisation,' particularly in nursing homes, is not a risk factor for assisted dying as is sometimes claimed. The greatest change in place of death since the Euthanasia Act came into effect is a decrease in hospital deaths and a complimentary increase in hospice care deaths, reflecting good palliative care practice.

Standard of practice

Of the 5,526 assisted dying cases reported in 2015, 4 were judged by the Euthanasia Committees as not meeting all necessary due care criteria: a compliance rate of 99.93% and non-compliance rate of 0.07%.

Summary

  • The 5,516 Dutch assisted dying cases for 2015 represents an increase of 4% on 2014 cases, and 3.9% of all Dutch deaths in 2015.
  • The rate of increase has slowed in line with expectations.
  • The great majority of cases involve cancer, the Netherlands' leading cause of death.
  • Assisted dying under other medical conditions is uncommon or rare.
  • Assisted dying usually occurs where the patient prefers, most often in their own home.
  • Assisted dying has decreased in hospitals and commensurately increased in hospices, in line with good palliative care practice.
  • The rate of compliance with all legal requirements in 2015 was 99.93%.

 
Some commentators have criticised the numbers of Dutch using the Euthanasia Act even though the rate remains a very small proportion of all deaths (3.9%). The question, however, is not 'how many', but whether these cases represent the contexts and circumstances the legislature had in mind when crafting the Euthanasia Act, which stipulates a raft of conditions and processes. It is clear that the legislature's intent has been upheld.
 

References

Abarshi, E, Onwuteaka-Philipsen, B, Donker, G, Echteld, M, Van den Block, L & Deliens, L 2009, 'General practitioner awareness of preferred place of death and correlates of dying in a preferred place: a nationwide mortality follow-back study in the Netherlands', Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, vol. 38, no. 4, pp. 568-77.

Regional Euthansia Review Committees (Netherlands) 2015, Annual report 2015, Arnhem, pp. 81.

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The Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece by Dr Andrew McGee

Dr Andrew McGee, Senior Lecturer in law at Queensland University of Technology, published an opinion piece, "Why Bob Hawke is wrong about euthanasia," opposing assisted dying law reform in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 19th April. He invokes straw-man arguments and conflates different issues. 

His ‘they might choose to die too early’ argument overlooks both the current tragedy of the terminally ill suiciding by violent means, as well as that in currently lawful jurisdictions like Oregon and Washington, a third of people who qualify for their medication never take it: it provides strong psychological relief that there is another option available whether they take it or not.

His argument that any boundary in regard to who may qualify would be arbitrary is to overlook the intrinsic boundary-ness of law. A minor (under 18) cannot lawfully buy alcohol. A person may not lawfully participate in ‘sophisticated’ investments unless they earn more than $250k a year. We accept legal boundaries as normal and necessary even if some feel a particular boundary is arbitrary. Necessarily, some will be excluded.

Further, arguing against assisted dying law reform on the principle that it’s ‘complicated’ is to argue against law in any case of alleged complexity. Marriage and divorce are complicated. Should we outlaw those?

Dr McGee’s arguments lack coherence and consistency and comprehensively fail to mount a persuasive case against the legalisation of assisted dying.


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One of the articles wrongly claiming 650 Dutch babies euthanized

Opponents of assisted dying have fallen prey to misinformation contagion about the Dutch Groningen Protocol, claiming that 650 babies would be or are euthanized every year. The claim is comprehensively and evidentially false.

Starting in 2013 and increasing in shrillness in 2015, numerous opponents of assisted dying law reform—many of whom are connected to conservative (Christian) sources—published online articles making false claims about the Dutch Groningen Protocol, wrongly claiming that up to 650 babies could be, would be or actually are ‘euthanized,’ ‘killed’ or ‘murdered’ every year under the Protocol’s provisions.

I provide a forensic analysis of the claim, demonstrating it to be comprehensively and evidentially false, in the latest edition of the Journal of Assisted Dying.

 

What is the Groningen Protocol?

  • A national Dutch Regulation (not statute) effective since late 2006 whose current name is so long that it remains convenient to use its old name, ‘Groningen Protocol,’ even though it has changed.
  • Permits, only as a last resort and with a number of strict conditions, the intentional ending of a newborn’s life when the newborn is in current (not merely anticipated) untreatable and unrelievable extremis.
  • Mandatory reporting of intentionally hastened deaths to a national Commission and the Board of Prosecutors General at The Hague.
  • Physician is not cleared until the case is deemed acceptable by the Commission and the Board and the Minister of Security and Justice.
  • The Regulation is entirely separate from and unrelated to the Dutch Euthanasia Act for competent adults.

Where did the '650 babies euthanized' claim come from?

In 2013 the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) published a media release that launched a major policy paper about end-of-life decisions for neonates. The media release stated that of the approximately 175,000 births in the Netherlands each year, around 650 newborns will die as a result of severe congenital defects.

Some of these babies die soon after birth, in the delivery room. Others die later in neonatal intensive care despite the best interventions attempting to keep them alive. Yet others die after futile treatment is withdrawn and palliative (comfort) care is administered to minimize suffering prior to death.

Only in a tiny minority of cases is there a medical intervention with an explicit intention to hasten the death of the newborn, who is in untreatable and unrelievable extremis.

Despite this clarity, opponents—mostly linked to conservative religious sources—jumped on the misinformation bandwagon and trumpeted that 650 babies either could be or would be or are actually ‘euthanized,’ ‘killed’ or ‘murdered’ every year in the Netherlands.

What's the actual evidence?

  • Neonatal euthanasia occurs around the world regardless of prohibition and is not caused by a protocol or regulation
    • For example, the rate in France, with no regulation, is much higher than the Netherlands.
  • Intentional hastening of neonatal death in the Netherlands is rare
    • Most neonatal deaths occur either quickly with no medical intervention, or intensive treatment proves futile and palliative (comfort) care is administered until death.
  • The (Groningen) Regulation has been further restricted since it was first formulated
    • It has not been 'relaxed' as claimed by some opponents.
  • The Regulation is separate from and completely unrelated to the Netherlands' Euthanasia Act
    • The Euthanasia Act is only for mentally competent adults (and 12-16 year olds with parental agreement).
  • Physicians do not receive black-letter law protection as they do under the Euthanasia Act
    • Reporting, investigation and acceptance requirements are even more rigorous than under the Euthanasia Act.
  • The rate of intention to hasten neonatal death has decreased since the Regulation came into effect
    • In eight years prior to Regulation there were twenty two reported cases, and only two in eight years since Regulation.
    • The rate of medical end-of-life decisions with an explicit intention to hasten death was 8–9% prior to Regulation, dropping to 1% after Regulation.
    • The use of neuromuscular blockers has decreased.
  • Physicians report improved communication with parents
    • Shared decision-making and better opportunities for parents to grieve the loss of their child.
  • There are clear explanations for the decrease in neonatal euthanasia in the Netherlands:
    • Physicians report they are fearful of prosecution under the Regulation, so they now more often administer palliative care not intended to hasten death.
    • A folate supplementation program for pregnant females has resulted in a substantial drop in the rate of spina bifida and related disorders.
    • An antenatal screening program at 20 weeks has resulted in a higher rate of pregnancy terminations for major congenital disorders.

In conclusion

Despite all these facts, in an epidemic of 'confirmation bias' that drove misinformation contagion, many anti-euthanasia commentators have published false claims about '650 babies euthanized' under the Dutch Groningen Protocol. I provide a forensic examination of the issue in the latest edition of the Journal of Assisted Dying.

This is not the first example of how opponents of assisted dying widely circulate information that is untrue (e.g. check out the Council of Europe Declaration 1859 case), and it won't be the last. However, for opponents of assisted dying to avoid egg on face, I'd recommend:

Best not to engage in
misinformation contagion.

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