Lobbying: Opponents

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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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antiassisteddyingadtheageheraldsun14jun08.gif

You only have to look to understand who is campaigning against your right to choose an assisted death in the face of intolerable and unrelievable suffering.

A case in point is a massive advertisement published in both of Melbourne’s daily newspapers: News Corp’s The Herald Sun (right-wing) and Fairfax Media’s The Age (left-wing). The ad was published in 2008 when Victorian MLC Colleen Hartland introduced the Medical Treatment (Physician Assisted Dying) Bill into the State legislature.

The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, also sent the advertisement as a letter to all members of the Victorian Parliament.1

So, who are the advertisement’s signatories? I’ve listed them all in Table 1.
 

Table 1: Signatories to the 2008 Victorian anti-assisted-dying advertisement

Rt Rev. Graham Bradbeer
Moderator, Presbyterian Church of Victoria

The Rev. Fr Graeme A. Michell, FSSM
Parish Priest, Anglican Catholic Parish of St Mary the Virgin, Melbourne

Rev. Ross Carter
Uniting Church in Australia

Pastor Graham Nelson
Senior Pastor, Life Ministry Centre

Rev. Dr Max Champion
National Chair of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the Uniting Church in Australia

Rev. David Palmer
Convenor Church and Nation Committee, Presbyterian Church of Victoria

Pastor Mark Conner
Senior Minister of CityLife Church

Rev. Greg Pietsch
President, Victorian District, Lutheran Church of Australia

Dr Denise Cooper-Clarke
Adjunct Lecturer, Ridley Melbourne Mission and Ministry College

Marlene Pietsch
[Director of the Lutheran School of Theology]
Lutheran Church of Australia

Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen
Director Institute for Judaism and Civilization

Very Rev. Dr Michael Protopopov
Dean - Russian Orthodox Church in Australia

Rev. Megan Curlis-Gibson
St Hilary’s Anglican Church, Kew

Marcia Riordan
Respect Life Office, Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne

Archbishop Dr Philip Freier
Anglican Church of Melbourne

Metropolitan Archbishop Paul Saliba
Primate of Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, New Zealand & the Philippines

Imam Riad Galil
West Heidelburg Mosque
Member of the Victorian Board of Imams

Bishop Peter Stasiuk CSSR DD
Eparchy of Saints Peter and Paul of Melbourne, for Ukrainian Catholics in Australia and New Zealand

Rev. Father James Grant SSC
Chaplains Without Borders,
Melbourne Anglican Diocese

Dale Stephenson
Senior Pastor Crossway Baptist Church

Assoc. Professor Afif Hadj MB BS (Melb) FRACS
Director of Surgery, Director of Medical Training, Maroondah Hospital (A Monash University Teaching Hospital)

Pastor Peter Stevens
Victorian State Officer
Festival of Light Australia

Archbishop Denis Hart
Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne

Dr Nicholas Tonti-Filippini
Associate Dean, JPII Institute for Marriage and Family Melbourne

Rev. Fr Geoff Harvey
Priest of the Good Shepherd Antiochian Orthodox Mission Parish, based at Monash University

Rob Ward
Victorian State Director Australian Christian Lobby

Assoc. Professor Rosalie Hudson
Aged Care & Palliative Care consultant/educator

Jim Zubic
President of Orthodox Chaplaincy Association

Peter McHugh
Senior Pastor Christian City Church, Whitehorse

Persons in blue: Career is religion

 

Almost all of them are religious by career

To save you a lot of time assessing who these people are, I’ve coloured in blue all the folks whose job it is to espouse religion — at least, their own hierarchy’s view of it.

That’s 27 of the 29 signatories who by career are intensely immersed in their own religious perspective of the world; established and promoted through institutional doctrine.

But what about the other two?

What about the other two signatories, Assoc. Prof. Afif Hadi and Assoc. Prof. Rosalie Hudson (in yellow)?

Notice that Prof. Afif Hadi’s entry lists only his surgery profession. Highly relevant, but not mentioned, is that he was President (previously Vice Chairman) of the Australian and New Zealand Board of Trustees, Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia and New Zealand. As head of the Board of the Archdiocese, his religious signature is intimately entwined with another: Metropolitan Archbishop Paul Saliba, the Primate of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese.

Assoc. Prof. Rosalie Hudson’s listing too, mentions only seemingly secular links. What is omitted is that she is or was Chair of the University of Divinity (a multi-faith religious institution) Human Research Ethics Committee, Secretary of the Uniting Church’s committee on bioethics, a member of the Interfaith Committee, and an Academic Associate at Charles Sturt University’s School of Theology.

Thus, both Prof. Hadi and Assoc. Prof. Hudson are also deeply rooted in religious faith. The point is not to make any criticism of their faith or practice, but merely to observe the deeply religious connections to opposing assisted dying law reform. It’s worth mentioning that both Hadi and Hudson do valuable charity work.

So, all of them are deeply religious

A pertinent question to ask is: ‘What proportion of the signatories are neutral, scholarly researchers who have studied the empirical evidence from jurisdictions where assisted dying is already lawful?’ Answer: None of them. Enough said.

And what proportion of the signatories to this anti-assisted dying advertisement are very deeply invested in organised religion? The simple answer is as usual: 100%, all of them.

Disconnected from their flocks

Critically, these career-religious fail to reflect the views of their own flocks. We know from repeated polls, for example, that three out of four Australian Catholics, more than three out of four Uniting Church members, and four out of five Anglicans (Church of England) support assisted dying law reform.

How have the religious hierarchy become so out of touch? Perhaps Mr Ian Wood, co-founder of Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Euthanasia might be able to offer his own insights.

This kind of clerical disconnect from the contemporary will of the people is one of the key reasons Australians are deserting religion in droves, as successive censuses show.

Conclusion

The evidence is irrefutable. Those who are actively organised to oppose your right to choose an assisted death are deeply religious, even when they use seemingly secular arguments (more on those later).

They are entitled to their opinions for themselves. But what right do they have to deny the vast majority of Australians, who do not agree with their views, the right to choose?

To phrase it in the personal, why does the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourrne, Denis Hart, think it appropriate to demand that Mr Geoff Drummond, a Buddhist, should have suffered against his will at the end of life for the Archbishop's version of faith, rather than Mr Drummond's own spiritual beliefs? Why does Rabbi Shimon Cowen think it appropriate to demand that Mr Alan Rosendorff, a fellow Jew, should have suffered against his will at the end of life for the Rabbi's version of faith, rather than Mr Rosendorff's own carefully-considered and deeply-held views? And why does Imam Riad Galil think it appropriate to demand that Mr Peter Short, not a Muslim, should have suffered against his will at the end of life for the Imam's beliefs, rather than his own?

Perhaps hubris remains alive and well amongst religious conservatives?

-----

Declaration: In fairness to those mentioned in this article, I openly declare that I am agnostic.

 

References

  1. Bradbeer, G, Rt Rev., Carter, R, Rev., Champion, M, Rev. Dr, Conner, M, Pastor, Cooper-Clarke, D, Dr, Cowen, S, Rabbi Dr, Curlis-Gibson, M, Rev., Freier, P, Archbishop Dr, Galil, R, Imam, Grant SSC, J, Rev. Fr, Hadj, A, Assoc. Prof., Hart, D, Archbishop, Harvey, G, Rev. Fr, Hudson, R, Assoc. Prof., McHugh, P, Michell, GA, Rev. Fr, Nelson, G, Pastor, Palmer, D, Rev., Pietsch, G, Rev., Pietsch, M, Protopopov, M, Very Rev. Dr, Riordan, M, Saliba, P, Metropolitan Archbishop, Stasiuk, P, Bishop, Stephenson, D, Stevens, P, Pastor, Tonti-Filippini, N, Dr, Ward, R & Zubic, J 2008, Reject physician assisted dying - An open letter to Victorian MPs, Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, viewed 13 Jun 2008, http://www.cam.org.au/Euthanasia.aspx.

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Dr Megan Best and the AMA profoundly misrepresent what this research says.

In my report about Dr Megan Best misreporting research findings about assisted dying practice in Belgium, I said that I would ask the Australian Medical Association (AMA) to publish a correction statement. I did just that, posting a courteous notice explaining the misinformation and requesting the correction, as a comment to their online article. What happened next was supremely revealing about how the conservative medical establishment opposes your right to choose assisted dying. I expose six reprehensible aspects of Dr Megan Best’s ‘expert’ opinion and MJA InSight’s response to my report.

 

Response 1—Try to bury the correction request

How did the AMA respond? Well, first of all, they simply deleted my post from the Medical Journal of Australia article (in MJA InSight).1

Subsequently, AMA member Dr Rosemary Jones posted my advice and request for correction. They dared not delete the post of a member, because Dr Jones’ post remains and MJA InSight have now responded… in a fashion.

Response 2—Plead it’s not the AMA

First up, Cate Swannell, editor of MJA InSight as well as “MJA news and online,” wrote that MJA InSight is:

“…editorially independent from the AMA and the AMA does not influence our content and editorial decisions in any way, shape or form … Thanks.” — Cate Swannell

It would be fair to take Ms Swannell’s word for it that the AMA doesn’t make a habit of sticking its nose into individual items at the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA). But consider this: MJA, of which MJA InSight is a part, is published by a wholly owned subsidiary of the AMA. That is, even in the absence of direct influence, one might reasonably expect that the AMA has broader, long-term influence over “content and editorial decisions.” After all, a core purpose of establishing a wholly-owned subsidiary is to help promote owner’s interests (which at present are officially and trenchantly opposed to the legalisation of assisted dying).

Those interests are further intertwined at DoctorPortal which is co-owned and operated by the AMA and its entity that publishes MJA. The portal includes the ‘MJA Bookshop’ where doctors must log in using their AMA credentials to obtain discounts.

MJA InSight is in real and practical terms a publication of the AMA.

Refresher: The original allegations

Before we cover the further AMA responses, let’s remind ourselves of the ‘expert opinion’ the AMA obtained from Dr Megan Best about Belgian assisted dying practice as published in MJA InSight:

“I am concerned by the reduction in referral to palliative care doctors and specialists in the euthanasia approval process, as GPs are less likely to know whether or not the suffering can be alleviated – the keystone of the act,” she said.

“This is a weakening of the due process of the act and suggests that the ‘safeguards’ are seen more as a barrier to be overcome than an opportunity to improve life to the extent that euthanasia is no longer necessary.” — Dr Megan Best

Response 3—Confirm the ‘cherry-picking’ misrepresentation

Here’s how Sarah Colyer, author of the article in which Dr Best’s nonsense was quoted, responded to Dr Rosemary Jones’ objections:

“…there are two findings related to the involvement of palliative care doctors in the study. First, the study found palliative care physicians were less likely to be the legally-required ‘second doctor’ to sign off on the decision for euthanasia, as more GPs took on the role.” — Sarah Colyer

What a profound fudge. The paper does not say that. There is a notional mathematical decrease in palliative care (PC) ‘sign-offs,’ but with a p value of 0.3 it is not in the slightest bit statistically significant. In other words, it is not possible to validly assert that it became “less likely.” And this is the reason that the researchers correctly didn’t draw such an inference in their discussion and conclusions.

This is extraordinary. In its defence, this AMA publication confirms and defends that Dr Best had cherry-picked a supposed trend with no statistical significance and which seems to (but doesn’t) support opposition to assisted dying law reform, while utterly failing to mention a highly significant trend (p = 0.001) in the opposite direction, present in the very same table of data (Table 3 of the cited research paper).2

While the original MJA article reported on both data series, it failed to identify that one was in no way statistically significant while the other was highly so.

Response 4—Execute an impressive flip-flop

“Second, and as Sarah Edelman is quoted saying, 39% of patients had contact with palliative care teams in the lead up to euthanasia (but these doctors were not necessarily involved in sign-off).” — Sarah Colyer

Both Dr Megan Best, and Sarah Collyer in defence, express concern about what they see as the insufficient ‘signing off’ or approval of assisted dying by Belgian PC specialists. Yet Palliative Care Australia explicitly states that:

“The practice of palliative care does not include euthanasia or physician assisted suicide. Palliative care does not intend to hasten or postpone death.” — Palliative Care Australia3

So on the one hand Australia's national PC body demands that PC have nothing whatever to do with assisted dying, while an Australian PC specialist (who is opposed to assisted dying) demands that it must: not just ‘incidental’ involvement to ensure the patient is well-informed as to what PC may offer, but to directly insert itself in the assisted dying approval process.

What an impressive ‘must not, yet must’ flip-flop.

Response 5—Confirm bias about consultations

Sarah Colyer goes on to say:

“Although this latter figure is an increase from 33%, the article makes clear that this is more about palliative care doctors being ‘notified’ than necessarily having any professional input into the decision-making process.” — Sarah Collyer

If my point 3 above exposed a ‘profound’ fudge, this is a spectacular one. Indeed it’s utter fiction. Nowhere in the cited research report do the data or authors suggest in any way that PC teams were merely ‘notified.’ They were consulted. The word is used explicitly in no fewer than seventeen times specifically in relation to PC. What is a professional ‘consultation’?: “a meeting or discussion to obtain advice.”

To suggest that these are mere ‘notifications’ is absurd: why would a physician even bother to formally ‘notify’ other relevant carers if he or she had no intention of the notification having any meaningful consequence?

The only outcome of this ‘notification’ fiction is to make Belgian physicians seem careless or disinterested—a shabby and biased approach to describing overseas colleagues who engage in lawful conduct of which the commentators (at least, Dr Best) personally disapprove.

Response 6—Demonstrate fundamental ignorance about research

Remember that Dr Best complained about her perception of a low assisted dying PC consult rate as obstructing the “opportunity to improve life to the extent that euthanasia is no longer necessary”. Sarah Colyer defends and amplifies the ‘low consult rate’ message of the Belgian research:

“Although Dr Edelman and the study authors said this [increase in palliative care consults] was a positive development, Dr Best and another respected palliative care doctor who provided background for the article said it was still overall a very low rate of palliative care involvement.” — Sarah Colyer

These remarks reveal a deep ignorance about research evidence. The reported data the 'experts' criticised was only in respect of PC involvement after a request for assisted dying. It did not include any PC consults that occurred in the patient’s care trajectory prior to the assisted dying request. (Indeed, the assisted dying request may in some cases have developed as a consequence of palliative futility.) The research authors are even explicit about this:

“The reporting form does not record whether patients have previously received palliative care.” — Dierickx, Deliens, Cohen et al2

Contrary to Best and Colyer’s indefensible assumption, empirical research evidence indicates that around 74% of assisted dying cases in 2013 at least in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking larger half of Belgium, involved specialist PC services.4 The Dierckx et al2 data is also in respect only of PC-primary-specialist consults. Many Belgian physicians, especially but not only many oncologists, themselves hold PC sub-specialty endorsements, yet only their primary organ or disease specialty is recorded on the report forms.

The 74% PC consult figure of course by definition excludes those who made a request but who subsequently rescinded it (i.e. not captured in the data because there was no assisted death). The patient may have rescinded their request as a consequence of PC consultation. Other published scientific research indicates that in 2013 around 18% of Belgian assisted dying requesters revoked their request.5

Indeed, more than half (59%) of Belgian patients making a request in 2013 died before the consulting team had reached a decision, and 7.5% of requests were denied by physicians because the patient wasn’t terminally ill even though that is not a requirement of the law.5 The wider evidence suggests that Belgian doctors remain conservative and cautious rather than pursuing poor practice as Dr Best and Ms Colyer invalidly attempt to conclude.

What is “very low”?

Just for good measure, let’s compare a Belgian assisted dying 74% PC consult rate with the general PC rate in Australia (where assisted dying is illegal). There’s precious little data around and Palliative Care Australia didn’t respond to two requests. [Addendum 5th Oct: Palliative Care Australia responded but advised that to the best of their knowledge the specific statistics were not available.] The closest relevant official data I could find with hours of intensive research, reports that in 2011-12, 39.5% of hospital inpatients who died received PC consults.6 Of course, PC consults can only be relevant in respect of non-sudden deaths because there’s no opportunity to make such decisions in a relatively sudden death. About two thirds of all deaths are not ‘sudden,’ so let’s adjust up the original figure to reflect that, resulting in a hospital non-sudden-death PC consult rate of around 60%.

Half (50%) of all deaths in Australia occur in hospitals, 38% in residential and community (i.e. other institutionalised) care, and just 12% elsewhere (mostly at home).6 Let’s say for the sake of argument (and lack of data) that the PC consult rate for other institutions is similar to hospitals. Let’s also assume that of (two thirds non-sudden) deaths at home, all of them received palliative care consults. That raises the Australian PC consult rate to around 68% of all non-sudden deaths. Maybe the real figure is somewhat higher or lower.

But it is wholly incorrect to conclude, given Belgium’s Flemish PC consult rate for assisted dying at 74%, that the Belgian palliative care consult rate is “very low” as the two ‘expert’ PC commentators wrongly assert and Sarah Colyer reports on the basis of data about a different measure.

Conclusion

The AMA widely promotes evidence-based decision making, but it has comprehensively offended its standard in regard to this issue. The AMA’s response to this further critique will give the Australian public a strong indication as to its intent, ethics and credibility. Of course, I'll let you know how they respond.

As for Dr Megan Best offering such ill-considered and evidence-defying nonsense as ‘expert opinion,’ I would hope that she permanently retires from offering commentary.

Now at least you can see the kinds of rubbish arguments that the conservative medical establishment uses to justify opposing your right to consider an assisted death.

 

Inexpert opinion via the AMA’s MJA

Through its MJA InSight article and response, the AMA has published and defended misinformation against assisted dying, a choice that the overwhelming majority of Australians want on the table, but which the AMA explicitly opposes.

  1. First up, the AMA tried to bury my critique of its incoherent and incorrect ‘expert opinion’ by deleting the critique.
  2. Then it tried to argue that its published misinformation was nothing to do with the AMA.
  3. It confirmed that it had reported a cherry-picked non-significant ‘trend’ from a research paper’s data that was, coincidentally, consistent with AMA opposition to assisted dying, while omitting to mention a highly statistically significant trend—in the same table of data—that contradicted the AMA and commentators’ stance.
  4. Its article and critique response argued that PC must be involved in approving assisted dying requests at the same time that Palliative Care Australia insists that assisted dying is nothing to do with PC.
  5. It fictionally asserted that the Belgian research paper suggested PC specialists were merely ‘notified,’ while the research paper said no such thing and referred repeatedly to ‘consultation.’
  6. It ignorantly claimed that the Belgian PC consult rate was “very low” (when it isn’t) on the basis of what happened only after an assisted dying request, ignoring that PC consults can and do occur before an assisted dying request.

 

References

  1. Colyer, S 2016, Belgian euthanasia model splits Aussie experts, MJA InSight, viewed 26 Sep 2016, https://www.doctorportal.com.au/mjainsight/2016/37/belgian-euthanasia-model-splits-aussie-experts/.
  2. Dierickx, S, Deliens, L, Cohen, J & Chambaere, K 2016, 'Euthanasia in Belgium: Trends in reported cases between 2003 and 2013', CMAJ, September 12, 2016.
  3. Palliative Care Australia 2016, Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide: Position statement, viewed 1 Sep 2016, http://palliativecare.org.au/download/2448/.
  4. Chambaere, K, Vander Stichele, R, Mortier, F, Cohen, J & Deliens, L 2015, 'Recent trends in euthanasia and other end-of-life practices in Belgium', N Engl J Med, 372(12), pp. 1179-1181.
  5. Dierickx, S, Deliens, L, Cohen, J & Chambaere, K 2015, 'Comparison of the expression and granting of requests for euthanasia in Belgium in 2007 vs 2013', JAMA Internal Medicine, 175(10), pp. 1703-1706.
  6. Swerissen, H & Duckett, S 2014, Dying well, Grattan Institute, Carlton, Victoria, pp. 37.

 

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Back in 2013 the High Court of Ireland rejected a legal bid by multiple sclerosis sufferer Marie Fleming to achieve a lawfully-assisted peaceful death.

The Court naturally relied on expert testimony in reaching its judgement, yet its conclusions included a statement containing significant errors of fact.

The erroneous statement

In its judgement,1 the Court made the following statement:

Above all, the fact that the number of LAWER (“legally assisted deaths without explicit request”) cases remains strikingly high in jurisdictions which have liberalised their law on assisted suicide (Switzerland, Netherlands and Belgium) — ranging from 0.4% to over 1% of all deaths in these jurisdictions according to the latest figures — without any obvious official response speaks for itself as to the risks involved.” [My emphases in bold]

In fact, the Court's judgement is wrong on not one, not two, but three significant matters. But that hasn't stopped opponents of assisted dying law reform from quoting the judgement as though it were factual and persuasive, when it isn't: relying on it because it was made by a High Court—the 'authority bias.'

Consequences

Here are just a few examples of the Court's statement being wielded by assisted dying opponents as though it were conclusive evidence against law reform:

 
These examples illustrate the frequency of quoting the misinformation and how it feeds into and wrongly shapes public policy formation.

Three strikes

So what are the three counts on which the Court's judgement was seriously wrong?

Strike 1: Wrong concept

First, let’s get the concepts right. LAWER is not “legally assisted deaths without explicit request.”

Such nomenclature is an oxymoron. To ‘assist’ is to accommodate, serve or help someone accomplish something. But if there has been no request then one cannot be helping. You can’t ‘assist’ a little old lady across the road if she has expressed no interest in going there: you’d be forcing her across the road. Equally, you can’t ‘assist’ a death if there’s no proper ‘request.’

LAWER in fact stands for “Life-ending Acts Without Explicit Request” (of a competent patient).5 And with the exception of the possible ‘lawfulness’ of the doctrine of double effect, such acts are illegal.

Further, if such acts were legal as the Court’s statement posits, then there would be no need for an “obvious official response” as the Court then concludes. The statement lacks fundamental coherence.

Strike 2: Not ‘strikingly high’

The Court's judgement states unequivocally that LAWER (otherwise known as Non-Voluntary Euthanasia or NVE) rates in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium are ‘strikingly high’, though no comparative yardstick is recorded in the judgement by which one might draw or justify that subjective judgement. Similar 'strikingly high' statements also appear in sections 102 and 104 of the judgement.

There is in fact a scientific study, published in The Lancet in 2003, that provides sound empirical evidence that could have properly informed the Court (Figure 1).6

Non-voluntary euthanasia in seven European countriesFigure 1: The non-voluntary euthanasia (NVE) rates of seven European countries in late 2001/early 2002

As revealed by this study, the NVE rates in Switzerland and the Netherlands were in fact lower than in Denmark, a country which has never had an assisted dying law.

The only country which did appear to have an NVE rate notably higher than the others was Belgium. The research study collected the data for analysis between June 2001 and February 2002. However, Belgium’s Euthanasia Act was not passed by its Parliament until 28th May 2002, well after data collection was complete. Thus, even in describing Belgium’s NVE rate as ‘strikingly high’ compared to a number of other European countries, it cannot be attributed to an assisted dying law because none existed at the time.

In fact, the NVE rate in Belgium had been found to be high back in 1998,7 well before the Bill for the country's Euthanasia Act was even tabled in Parliament.

Further, if assisted dying laws had such effects, it might be expected that the NVE rate would increase the longer that assisted dying laws were in place. In that case the NVE rates in Switzerland (statute since 1942) and the Netherlands (regulation since the early 1980s) would have NVE rates much higher than Belgium’s (statute since 2002). But the exact opposite is true.

Indeed, Rietjens and colleagues8 further concluded in their review of NVE in the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland that “the use of drugs with the intention to hasten death without an explicit request of the patient is part of medical end-of-life practice in the studied countries, regardless of their legal framework, and it occurs in similar fashion.” The study, published in 2007, would also have been important evidence before the Court.

Strike 3: Not ‘remaining’ high

The Court's judgement states unequivocally that the LAWER (NVE) rate of the three countries ‘remains’ strikingly high. No specific evidence was supplied in the judgement to support this statement. Indeed, the judgement notes:

  • In section 28 that Dutch NVE had been “consistently declining.”
  • In section 91 that “the number of LAWER deaths has significantly declined in both [Dutch and Belgian] jurisdictions.”
  • In section 94 that “the trend in [Dutch] LAWER cases are declining in numbers (from 1,000 in 1990 to 550 in 2005)” and that in Belgium “the number of LAWER cases has declined since legalisation of assisted death.”
  • In section 101 that the NVE rates of both the Netherlands and Belgium had dropped.

 
Despite this clear and repeated evidence, the Court summarises in section 96 that the evidence cannot be “regarded as encouraging or satisfactory.”

But what does empirical research tell us about the NVE trends? In both the Netherlands and Belgium, since assisted dying was enshrined in statute and became effective in 2002, the rate of NVE has decreased significantly (Figure 2).7,9-11 In fact, the rate in the Netherlands is now similar to that in the UK, a country which has never had an assisted dying law and which provides the world’s gold standard in palliative care practice.

Non-voluntary euthanasia rates have decreased in the Netherlands and BelgiumFigure 2: Empirical trends in NVE rates before and after legalisation of assisted dying

These are critical yardsticks by which to judge practice in jurisdictions that have assisted dying laws with jurisdictions that don't. The UK study was published in 2009 and was readily available prior to the High Court’s hearings, yet appears not to have been presented in evidence.

The final (2010) Dutch NVE statistic in Figure 2 may or may not have been available to the Court: it was published in 2012 around the time the Court was taking evidence. The final (2013) Belgian statistic would not have been available to the Court as it was published in 2015.

Conclusion

While the High Court worked diligently within the scope of evidence brought before it:

  • The Court’s definition of LAWER is incorrect and incoherent;
  • Its statement that the NVE rates of the Netherlands and Switzerland are ‘strikingly high’ are evidentially wrong when compared with other countries without assisted dying laws;
  • Its implication that the higher NVE rate in Belgium was caused by assisted dying law reform is evidentially wrong; and
  • Its statement that the rates remain high is evidentially wrong.

 
The High Court's judgement does not provide defensible evidence or argument against assisted dying law reform.

Many lobbyists have repeated these incorrect statements, significantly misleading media, policy makers and legislators.

Now that the facts are readily available it’s appropriate to avoid repeating evidentially wrong statements, regardless of the apparent 'authority' of their source.
 

Summary of facts

  1. LAWER stands for "Life-ending Acts Without Explicit Request". Its practice is similar in countries with and without assisted dying laws.
  2. The NVE rates in the Netherlands and Switzerland are lower than the rate in Denmark, a country which has never had an assisted dying law.
  3. The NVE rate in Belgium appears higher, but was so long before assisted dying law reform and so cannot have been caused by such a law.
  4. The NVE rates of the Netherlands and Belgium have both decreased significantly since their assisted dying statutes came into effect in 2002.

References

  1. High Court of Ireland 2013, Fleming v Ireland & Ors - Determination, [2013] IEHC 2, Dublin.
  2. Boudreau, JD, Somerville, MA & Biller-Andorno, N 2013, 'Physician-assisted suicide: should not be permitted/should be permitted', New England Journal of Medicine, 368(15), pp. 1450-1452.
  3. Somerville, M 2016, 'Killing as kindness: The problem of dealing with suffering and death in a secular society', The Newman Rambler, 12(1), pp. 1-26.
  4. Keown, J 2014, 'A right to voluntary euthanasia? Confusion in Canada in Carter', Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, 28(1), pp. 1-45.
  5. Pijnenborg, L, van der Maas, PJ, van Delden, JJM & Looman, CW 1993, 'Life-terminating acts without explicit request of patient', Lancet, 341(8854), pp. 1196-1199.
  6. van der Heide, A, Deliens, L, Faisst, K, Nilstun, T, Norup, M, Paci, E, van der Wal, G & van der Maas, PJ 2003, 'End-of-life decision-making in six European countries: descriptive study', The Lancet, 362(9381), pp. 345-350.
  7. Bilsen, J, Cohen, J, Chambaere, K, Pousset, G, Onwuteaka-Philipsen, BD, Mortier, F & Deliens, L 2009, 'Medical end-of-life practices under the euthanasia law in Belgium', New England Journal of Medicine, 361(11), pp. 1119-1121.
  8. Rietjens, JA, Bilsen, J, Fischer, S, Van Der Heide, A, Van Der Maas, PJ, Miccinessi, G, Norup, M, Onwuteaka-Philipsen, BD, Vrakking, AM & Van Der Wal, G 2007, 'Using drugs to end life without an explicit request of the patient', Death Studies, 31(3), Mar, pp. 205-21.
  9. Seale, C 2009, 'End-of-life decisions in the UK involving medical practitioners', Palliat Med, 23(3), pp. 198-204.
  10. Onwuteaka-Philipsen, BD, Brinkman-Stoppelenburg, A, Penning, C, de Jong-Krul, GJF, van Delden, JJM & van der Heide, A 2012, 'Trends in end-of-life practices before and after the enactment of the euthanasia law in the Netherlands from 1990 to 2010: a repeated cross-sectional survey', The Lancet, 380(9845), pp. 908-915.
  11. Chambaere, K, Vander Stichele, R, Mortier, F, Cohen, J & Deliens, L 2015, 'Recent trends in euthanasia and other end-of-life practices in Belgium', N Engl J Med, 372(12), pp. 1179-1181.
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Yesterday in a prominent opinion piece in The Age newspaper,1 palliative care specialists argued that palliative care is imperfect and in need of an injection of funds. I agree on both counts.

Nurse Peter Hudson, and doctors Mark Boughey and Jennifer Philip of the Centre for Palliative Care argued that instead of assisted dying as recommended by the recent Victorian Parliament committee report, increased funding of palliative care is ‘the answer.’

Key arguments

Here are the highlights of their opinion piece:
  1. They refer to assisted dying, a neutral expression now in common use amongst both lay commentators and scholars, as a euphemism. Instead they laboriously refer to assisted suicide (suicide is universally seen as a pejorative term with all its baggage about mental illness and substance abuse), and euthanasia (consistently omitting the qualifier ‘voluntary’).
  2. Dying at home should not be the gold standard (despite the great majority preferring it); instead, dying in hospital can be ‘preferred.’
  3. In a profound lack of self-reflection or consistent logic, they say that assisted dying ought to remain outlawed because its outcomes are uncertain. Even assuming the premise of the statement, this would be an identical argument to ban palliative care, whose outcomes are at least equally if not considerably more uncertain.
  4. They falsely imply that users of assisted dying not infrequently experience “very unfavourable” reactions to the drugs. This is simply untrue and I challenge them to provide the empirical evidence that they state is so very important.
  5. Tellingly, they describe a peaceful assisted death as “sanitised,” signalling their intrinsic disapproval of other’s choices.
  6. They say that focus should remain on increased resourcing of palliative care, failing to mention that the Parliamentary committee’s report indeed recommended increases in palliative care funding and improvement of evidence-based practice. Overseas evidence also reveals improvements in palliative care in jurisdictions with assisted dying legislation. There’s no false dichotomy between palliative care and assisted dying as the authors try to insinuate.
  7. They assume that medical interventionism (what they have to offer) is the correct and normative response, ignoring the fact that some people simply don’t want more interventions.
 

The filibuster

In a journal article recently published by two of the opinion piece authors,2 and repeated in principle in the Centre’s submission to and appearance before the Parliamentary inquiry,3,4 they say that:

“Increased resources and effort must be directed toward training, research, community engagement, and ensuring adequate resourcing for palliative care to benefit many before further consideration is given to allocating resources into legalising EAS to respond to the requests of a few.”

Notice two things about their recommendation—the filibuster.

Maximising what cannot be done

Firstly, they say we must not just ban assisted dying, but that it is dangerous even to talk about it: palliative care must be improved even “before further consideration is given.” The specific purpose of this part of the filibuster is to maximise what cannot be done: to position even mere conversation, let alone actual reform, as ‘unsafe.’

Maximising the delay

Secondly, nowhere in their argument do they provide a single quantitative metric (and which they strongly argue is necessary for the legalisation of assisted dying) by which the palliative care reforms they advocate might be judged: not a single dollar amount nor a single performance benchmark amongst their many recommendations.

How much will reforms cost, how long will they take, and what performance measure improvements would need to be achieved for the expenditure to be judged effective? What performance measures would need to be reached before it was then ‘safe’ to even consider assisted dying? The authors are entirely mute on these critical matters, while making precisely these evidential demands of assisted dying.

So, the opinionists’ argument allows them to indefinitely say that “more improvements are needed in palliative care before we even talk about assisted dying,” because further ‘improvements’ are always possible.

But all that was a ruse anyhow

In any case, the authors say in their submission to the Parliamentary inquiry that there are numerous problems (spurious, I argue) with legalising assisted dying; that they doubt they could be overcome; and then finally “it should not be construed that we would support the legalisation of EAS if efforts were made to address [the problems].”4, page 6 (Curiously, they omit the third, critical statement from their more public opinion piece.)

This truly exposes the classic filibuster… an open-ended call with no metrics, which therefore can be deemed never to have been met. How convenient. But, even if they were met, the authors still wouldn’t support reform. This begs the question:

If the authors are as so firmly evidence-based—as they take pains to emphasise—why would they not support a reform if the evidence endorsed it?

There must be something other than evidence that drives their entrenched opposition to assisted dying: something so important that it renders all their previous arguments null and void. What might that be?

Who are these people, anyway?

It’s informative to answer the question of who these three from the Centre for Palliative Care are. The Centre sounds like a neutral government body. It isn’t. Don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that these three are skilled and compassionate practitioners and that the Centre delivers good services.

In reality the Center is a section of Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital. That’s an organisation that proudly states “as a Catholic healthcare service we bring God’s love to those in need through the healing ministry of Jesus.”

I believe St V’s to be a high-quality healthcare institution, but too bad if the patient just wants evidence-based medical care and not the ‘healing ministry’ of a religious figure they may not subscribe to.

The reason this is important is this: what the three authors say about assisted dying is entirely consistent with the Vatican’s stance. I have no idea if any of the authors are Catholic, but what would be entirely surprising is if they published anything at odds with the views of the Vatican given their Centre is deeply embedded within the largest Catholic health and aged care service provider in the country.

For clarity and fairness, I once again place on the public record that I am agnostic.

The ‘Catholic card’

Before Messers Paul Russell, Alex Schadenberg and others leap onto their campaigning steeds to megaphone that I’m ‘playing the Catholic card’ (just wait for it!), let me be clear that I specifically am doing precisely that. For sure, The Catholic Church is not the only religious body resolutely opposed to anyone having the choice of assisted dying, but it’s the premier one.

And, Messers Russell et al would be absolutely right to point out that the authors didn’t raise a single religious argument, so let me save them the bother.

Religious opposition dressed up in secular garb

And that’s the point. It’s abundantly clear from multiple sources that religious opponents have actively decided that they will absolutely avoid using religious arguments because they know it will lose them the debate.

Media identity Andrew Denton’s Better Off Dead podcast series makes this avoidance abundantly clear from the Australian perspective. His insights, having attended a global anti-euthanasia conference in Adelaide, are important and revealing. 

From the North American perspective, a study just published by Associate Professor Ari Gandsman of the University of Ottawa in Death Studies5 reports uncanny North American similarities. Assisted dying opponents have actively decided to cease using religious arguments. Instead, their objective is to create an atmosphere of FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt. It is only this now, they agree amongst themselves, that will keep assisted dying off the statute books. As Gandsman explains (and I paraphrase), religious opponents have moved from ‘it’s a sin’ to ‘but think about all the perceived risks!’

Again, I reiterate that the three opinion piece authors are likely to be fine nurses and doctors (I have never met any of them), but I do say that their incoherent and self-contradictory arguments against assisted dying, remaining opposed even ‘if’ the evidence for it stacks up, is neither their finest work, nor varies one iota from the religious anchor that the Vatican provides to their Centre’s services.

The importance of mutual respect

If a person says to me “I believe assisted dying is wrong,” I respect that view and admire their resolution. For themselves. Including if it is underpinned by religious belief. If you believe that assisted dying, or surrogacy, or other contentious issue is wrong, don’t participate in it. 

But don’t expect that your own view of your own God trumps everyone else’s God—or lack thereof. In Australia for example, the majority of citizens are not Catholic. And most of those who are—three out of four—disagree with the Vatican’s opposition to assisted dying. The Vatican’s view then is not particularly relevant to anyone but its most ardent adherents.

Respect in both directions is warranted but is rather lacking from the more religious end. My argument is not against Catholicism itself. There are very fine Catholics on both sides of the debate, doing their best to live a deliberatively ‘good’ life.

Conclusion

We can do without the incoherent and indefensible nonsense advanced in secular garb by the religiously opposed.

Be clear folks: the FUD campaign is on its last legs. I will be further exposing rubbish arguments posed by those with religious connections but couched in non-religious language.

In the meantime you can see the clumsy, failed attempt at a filibuster by these three opinionists for what it is.

 

References

  1. Hudson, P., Boughey, M. & Philip, J., 2016, Victoria's proposed euthanasia laws are flawed, Melbourne: Fairfax Media, Accessed 21 Jun 2016, http://www.theage.com.au/comment/victorias-proposed-euthanasia-laws-are-flawed-20160620-gpn9p2.html
  2. Hudson, P., Hudson, R., Philip, J., Boughey, M., Kelly, B. & Hertogh, C., 2015, Legalizing physician-assisted suicide and/or euthanasia: Pragmatic implications for palliative care, Palliative and Supportive Care, 13(5), 1399-1409.
  3. Hudson, P., 2015, Inquiry into end of life choices: Submission 905 to the Parliament of Victoria, Centre for Palliative Care, St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne.
  4. Hudson, P., Boughey, M. and Philip, J., 2016, Witness Appearance Transcript: Inquiry into end-of-life choices - Centre for Palliative Care, Parliament of Victoria, Melbourne, 24 Feb.
  5. Gandsman, A., 2016,“A recipe for elder abuse:” From sin to risk in anti-euthanasia activism. Death Studies, In press.
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Lyle Shelton's bunkum tweet is broadcast on ABC's Q&A program

The Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Mr Lyle Shelton, is at it again.

Yesterday, he tweeted ABC's Q&A program as thousands of people do while it is on air. His tweet was broadcast live to air as shown above. What did he say as panelists were discussing assisted dying law reform?

"Sadly voluntary euthanasia quickly became involuntary euthanasia in Holland. #qanda" LyleShelton

Mr Shelton's claim is bunkum.

Confused language

Firstly, he's confused involuntary with non-voluntary euthanasia.

Involuntary euthanasia is the deliberate hastening of the death of an individual in contravention of the express wishes to the contrary of that individual.  Nobody (except the Australian Christian Lobby in its confusion) is seriously suggesting that involuntary euthanasia happens in the Netherlands, even as a 'result' of the country's euthanasia law.

Non-voluntary euthanasia is the deliberate hastening of the death of an individual without an explicit request from that individual. Increased doses of analgesics and sedatives are administered to alleviate intractable symptoms at the end of life, as a result of discussion between doctors and the patient's family (the patient is not currently competent to participate in decisions). The drugs may hasten death and if this happens, life is shortened by hours, or less often, days. Despite claims by some assisted dying opponents that this is unique to the Netherlands, scientific research shows clearly that the practice occurs all over the world and is not 'caused' by voluntary euthanasia laws.

ACL staff sing from the same hymn book

Daniel Flynn, Victorian Director of the Australian Christian Lobby, made a similar claim in a formal submission (#694) to the Victorian Parliament's Inquiry into End Of Life Choices:

"There is sufficient evidence to suggest that involuntary euthanasia is frequent in jurisdictions in which euthanasia has been legalised." [p 4.]

Not a shred—let alone 'sufficient'—evidence was offered to back up this silly myth, though it's hardly surprising given that there isn't any.

What does the evidence actually show?

The scientific evidence is crystal clear and it is the opposite of Lyle Shelton and the Australian Christian Lobby's claim. Since around 1985 the Netherlands had permitted assisted dying by regulation: under agreement amongst relevant authorities. The rate of non-voluntary euthanasia remained relatively unchanged under this arrangement (Figure 1). In 2002 the Netherlands' euthanasia Act came into effect, replacing regulatory arrangements with a comprehensive set of legislative (i.e. statutory) requirements.

 

dutchanduk-nve01.jpg
Figure 1: Netherlands and UK non-voluntary euthanasia rates

Since 2002, the rate of non-voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands has dropped, not risen.1 The drop is statistically significant. The rate of non-voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands is now around the same level as in the United Kingdom.2 The UK is generally accepted as the world's gold standard in palliative care practice and it does not have an assisted dying law.

Absolutely contrary to the claim of the Australian Christian Lobby's Lyle Shelton, the rate of non-voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands has dropped, not risen. It's now similar to the rate in the UK, which has no assisted dying law.

ABC news standards

Since the ABC moved the Q&A program from its entertainment division to its news division there is a heighted obligation on the broadcaster to ensure that the show's content is reason- and evidence-based, and not merely a platform for anyone to promote silly misinformation in support of a perspective.

No doubt the ABC will rise suitably to the occasion of discouraging misinformation and ensuring that any is corrected.

We'll be watching the next episode of ABC Q&A closely to fact check anything Mr Shelton and others say about assisted dying law reform. Give us a bell if you spot anything you know or suspect is untrue.

---------------

  1. Onwuteaka-Philipsen, BD, Brinkman-Stoppelenburg, A, Penning, C, de Jong-Krul, GJF, van Delden, JJM & van der Heide, A 2012, 'Trends in end-of-life practices before and after the enactment of the euthanasia law in the Netherlands from 1990 to 2010: a repeated cross-sectional survey', The Lancet, vol. 380, no. 9845, pp. 908-915.
  2. Seale, C 2009, 'End-of-life decisions in the UK involving medical practitioners', Palliative Medicine, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 198-204.

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ABC TV's Q&A panel discusses assisted dying law reform on 9th Nov 2015

In a recent opinion piece in the ABC’s Religion and Ethics section, Bernadette Tobin1 rails against assisted dying, commencing with the criticism that the ABC’s Q&A discussion on the subject this week “lacked precision.” But Tobin’s opinion piece itself commits exactly this offence, as I explain.

For the sake of brevity I’ll only quickly mention that Tobin’s piece also fails on the score of accuracy. For example, she wrongly asserts that “euthanasia” means a doctor administering lethal medication to a patient. It doesn’t. “Euthanasia” simply means “good death”: nothing more and nothing less, regardless of how it occurs. Tobin also asserts that voluntary euthanasia in lawful jurisdictions has caused non-voluntary euthanasia to develop. This is the polar opposite of published empirical research evidence.

But back to precision. Tobin employs two imprecise and deeply flawed arguments in her objection to assisted dying. She variously rolls them in together, so let’s unpack what they are: (A) the “it’s only fair” slippery slope, and (B) “it’s OK if you don’t mean it”.

A: The “It’s only fair” slippery slope

Tobin directly links assisted dying for the terminally ill to “anyone who is in pain, discomfort, constipated, incontinent, depressed, anxious and so on” by way of potential “benefit”. She conjectures that increasing the restrictions to who may qualify, and the process of qualification, would then be “unfair” to these others. She then goes on to extend the argument to those lacking in decisional capacity such as infants and those with Alzheimer’s. Surely, she says, “it would be ‘unfair’ to deny these people the ‘benefit’ that we will make available to those who are able to request it?

Slippery slope indeed. And it’s wrong. Let me illustrate how, using a topic familiar in political debate over recent years: same-sex marriage.

Opponents of same-sex marriage law reform, when using arguments of the kind Tobin offers (as they often do), say that we can’t allow two men to marry, or two women to marry, because then we would have to allow three or more people to marry. Further down the slippery slope, we would have to allow people to marry animals. Don’t laugh: such things have been argued.

Next—given that under the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth), companies, owners’ corporations and incorporated associations are at law ‘persons’, and now that persons may marry—it would be “unfair” (note that I’ve used imprecision quotation marks around the word as Tobin does) to disallow people from marrying companies and companies from marrying each other.

Finally, using Tobin’s own line of argument, it would be “unfair” to deny infants and those with Alzheimer’s being married off for the alleged “benefit” (those quotation marks again) that everyone else is enjoying, so we must as an unavoidable consequence of the first step of allowing same-sex marriage, allow arranged marriages for babies and those with advanced dementia.

By now it’s easy to spot two terminal flaws in Tobin’s argument.

Firstly, the use of just one criterion (“fairness”—which she leaves imprecisely undefined) as the sole basis for decision making about this legislative reform is indefensible. What about other critical factors such as well-informed, rational, decisional capacity, judging and weighing what a “benefit” is, in the face of intolerable and unrelievable suffering, consistent with one’s own values and beliefs, who may decide, and the right not to participate?

Secondly, any slippery slope’s purported summit (from which changes are argued only to slip downwards) is deeply rooted in the normativity of the present. We are used to marriage being between a man and a woman. In our relative comfort we accept it as ‘normal,’ ‘good’ and the ‘right thing’.

In decision-making scholarship this normativity is known as “anchoring”. Like an anchor around which a boat will swing according to the wind and tide, we take the pivot point (the anchor of the now), as the natural starting point for future decisions, comparing changes only to the present state of affairs.

But it isn’t a valid anchor, and assuming that it is seriously biases our thinking. We need cast our anchor back just one mooring from the current point to see how the anchor tints our decision-making spectacles:

We can’t allow a man and a woman to marry, because then it would be unfair to not allow two men to marry, or two women to marry, and then…”

Clearly, it is imperative that we outlaw marriage altogether.

The upshot of this slippery slope, when followed properly to its own logical conclusions, is that we must deny all rights because we can confect a slippery slope into a hypothetical moral abyss for any right.

B: It’s OK if you don’t mean it

Tobin further argues that relieving distressing symptoms “is good palliative care, even when that relief happens to hasten death.”

She doesn’t name it explicitly, but this is the doctrine of double effect, an argument first crafted in the thirteenth century by Catholic priest Thomas Aquinas. The doctrine suggests that a bad consequence of an action is justifiable if the agent did not intend the bad effect, if the intended good effect outweighs the bad effect, and if the agent applies diligence in attempting to minimise the bad effect. Notice that the doctrine speaks directly about the intentions of the agent and is silent on the views of the person upon whom the agent might act.

Tobin rails against a doctor intentionally administering a lethal dose to a patient (regardless of whether it is the dying patient’s most fervent wish) and slams the expressions “dying with dignity” and “aid in dying” as “fudges”.

Yet the doctrine of double effect, for which she argues in support, is itself a fudge because it says:

It’s OK to for a doctor to decide to and actually kill their patient (after all, they hastened the patient’s death), as long as they don’t mean to, and they mean well.”

What kind of standard is the secret stuff that goes on inside a doctor’s head without reference of any kind to the patient’s own views and desires, when compared to a fully informed, documented and tested request from the patient?

It’s no wonder that many scholars (as do I) consider the doctrine of double effect problematic.

--

Bernadette Tobin is the Director of the Plunkett Centre for Ethics, a joint initiative of St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, and Australian Catholic University (ACU). According to ACU, a core mission of the Centre is to “bring a Catholic perspective to all its endeavours”.2

It’s unsurprising then that I detected neither broad thrust nor any detail of Tobin’s ABC opinion piece that deviated from the views of the Vatican. So be it.

There are many points on which Tobin and I agree, such as the potential benefits of palliative care for the dying. I argue, though, that basic scrutiny of the proffered 'principles' reveal them as deeply flawed and unpersuasive.

 

References

1  Tobin, B 2015, Voluntary euthanasia: It can only be a way station to the non-voluntary, ABC Religion and Ethics, viewed 14 Nov 2015, <http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/11/13/4351675.htm>.

2  Australian Catholic University 2015, About the Plunkett Centre for Ethics, viewed 14 Nov 2015, <http://www.acu.edu.au/about_acu/faculties,_institutes_and_centres/centres/plunkett_centre_for_ethics/about_the_centre>.


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On 16th September 2015, the Victorian Director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), Dan Flynn, appeared as a witness to the Victorian Parliament’s end of life choices inquiry being conducted by the Legal and Social Issues Committee. He made a number of mistaken statements, but what was most worrisome was the revelation of the ACL’s real agenda: to wind back patient rights more than a quarter century.

 

Out of touch

In his opening address, Mr Flynn opined that assisted dying was 'not supported' by a 'broad base' of Victorian Christians (not just the ACL). This belief is diametrically at odds with clear and repeated evidence from multiple sources.

In 2012, I reported on a Newspoll study into Australian attitudes towards assisted dying. Not only did a whopping majority of citizens support assisted dying, but so did a great majority of Anglicans, Catholics and other Christians (Francis 2012).

 

Australian attitudes to assisted dying law reform in 2012

Newspoll 2012: Australian attitudes to assisted dying law reform by religion (green=support, red=oppose)

These national results are reflected by a sample of over 60,000 Victorians through the VoteCompass system during the 2014 Victorian election (Stayner 2014). It confirms a substantial majority of Catholics, Protestants, other religious and non-religious Victorians support assisted dying law reform.

 

votecompassvicvereligion2014.jpg

VoteCompass 2014: Victorian attitudes to assisted dying law reform by religion (grey=population average)

Out of date

Mr Flynn then referred to a Tasmanian Parliament’s inquiry into assisted dying which rejected law reform. However, the inquiry to which he refers was held in 1998, when Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act had barely been established, the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act had been extinguished within just eight months of coming into operation, and the Dutch, Belgian, Luxembourg, Washington and other legislation and judgements did not yet exist.

So, the Tasmanian Parliament’s rejection came from a position of a then general lack of information. The Oregon law has been in effect since 1997, the Netherlands and Belgium since 2002, Washington since 2008, Luxembourg since 2009, and so on. There is now plenty of evidence that assisted dying law reform doesn’t cause slippery slopes that opponents love to theorise about.

Wrong about ‘United Nations’

Mr Flynn then said that the United Nations had in 2012 expressed concern about a ‘lax attitude’ towards euthanasia in Europe, specifically mentioning the Netherlands and Belgium. This is completely untrue. Because it’s easy to make a simple blooper during a presentation, we’ll put aside the fact that he meant to refer to a completely different organisation: the Council of Europe.

We know this because he read directly from Council of Europe declaration 1859 (Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly 2012). His ACL submission (Australian Christian Lobby 2015) reports (as he read out) exactly one sentence of the declaration, with his added emphasis, as:

"Euthanasia, in the sense of the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit, must always be prohibited."

But presented in this manner the statement is quite misleading. As I explain in a forensic analysis of the misinformation campaign about this resolution (Francis 2015), the resolution was utterly clear about its intent: it was not about euthanasia (it explicitly said so), but rather about advance care planning. What the resolution spoke against (in the one sentence conveyed above) is non-voluntary euthanasia, not voluntary euthanasia. Both sides of the assisted dying debate agree that non-voluntary euthanasia (one person deciding for a hastened death on behalf of another) is not acceptable. It is not contentious.

In no way did the Council of Europe's resolution critique voluntary euthanasia or comment on any jurisdiction in which it is legal. And, the United Nations source to which the ACL submission refers was released in 2001, fourteen years ago and at the time of the Netherlands' Euthanasia Act was before the Dutch Parliament. With then limited information about how such laws work in practice, it expressed concern about the upcoming Act.

Wrong about Belgium’s law and practice

Mr Flynn referred vaguely to two cases of euthanasia in Belgium in which persons who requested and received euthanasia were not experiencing intolerable pain, which Mr Flynn asserted was a required safeguard in Belgium’s euthanasia Act. This was another supposed example of transgression of safeguards.  Wrong again.

While the Belgian Euthanasia Act is officially published only in Dutch and French, a robust English translation has been prepared under the supervision of Professor Herman Nys of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law at the Catholic University of Leuven (see Parliament of Belgium 2002). The word ‘pain’ does not appear in the Act… at all. What does the Act have to say about the legislature’s intent on who may qualify? The relevant clause in Section 1 says:

"the patient is in a medically futile condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that can not be alleviated, resulting from a serious and incurable disorder caused by illness or accident."

It’s abundantly clear: mental suffering from an illness or accident qualifies as much as physical suffering, and the suffering does not need to be ‘pain’ as Mr Flynn mistakenly asserted to the Parliamentary Committee.

Mr Flynn also stated that there are mobile end-of-life units in Belgium. There aren’t. (But there are in the Netherlands, and they must follow precisely all the same requirements as anyone else. They operate to provide choice to patients whose regular or reachable doctors disagree with assisted dying and therefore decline to evaluate whether the patient may qualify under the Act.)

Confused about Advance Care Directives

In further testimony, Mr Flynn opined that the degree to which a doctor should be allowed to override a patient’s Advance Care Directive (ACD) is in part influenced by whether the doctor can speak with the patient.

But if the patient can currently speak and participate in decision-making, the advance care directive doesn’t apply: it is mute and of no effect. An ACD only applies when the patient cannot currently participate in their own decision making. That’s (only) what it’s for.

Winding rights back more than a quarter century

But the most worrying aspect Mr Flynn’s testimony was the revelation of ACL’s opposition to the right to refuse unwanted medical treatment.

The Medical Treatment Act 1998 (Vic) has enshrined for now more than twenty five years a patient’s right to refuse any unwanted medical treatments. In 2003 the Supreme Court of Victoria determined that artificial nutrition and hydration (i.e. via tubes) is medical treatment and can therefore be refused under the Act.

But Mr Flynn repeatedly argued that withholding or withdrawing artificial nutrition and hydration, if the patient’s body could ‘absorb’ them, could amount to physician-assisted suicide, and that doctors must be allowed to override refusals. On the matter of patient autonomy, he said that some autonomy rests "with the patients, but a lot of the autonomy in fact is with the doctor”.

When asked if a Jehovah's Witness who refuses a life-saving and simple blood transfusion ought to be allowed to do so, he conceded that they should be entitled to, but that such a case was a “bit of an outlier”. He didn’t explain on what moral grounds one person could refuse a simple procedure to save their life, but another person mustn’t be allowed to even if the likelihood of saving life was doubtful.              

So, the ACL’s real agenda is revealed: it recommends winding back the legislative clock more than a quarter century so as to force patients to endure some medical interventions that they don’t want and firmly refuse, if the doctor wishes to proceed.

No wonder the Committee repeatedly questioned Mr Flynn to ensure they had heard and understood his testimony correctly. In conclusion, Committee Chair Edward O’Donohue observed that Mr Flynn’s evidence was “quite surprising” and “quite contrary” to wide evidence already given.

And it’s no wonder that Theo Mackaay, General Secretary of the Victorian Council of Churches—a group of 30 member churches representing mainstream Christianity—criticised the ACL as “fundamentally conservative” and expressed “deep concern that media portrayal of statements from an established and narrow focused lobby group is presented as being representative of the entire Christian community” (Uniting Church in Australia 2011).

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References

Australian Christian Lobby 2015, Submission to the Legal and Social Issues Committee on the Inquiry inito End of Life Choices, Parliament of Victoria, Melbourne, pp. 1-17.

Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly 2012, Resolution 1859 (2012): Protecting human rights and dignity by taking into account previously expressed wishes of patients, Europe, 25 Jan, pp. 2.

Francis, N 2012, Australian public desire for legalisation of assisted dying in restricted circumstances, YourLastRight.com, Melbourne, pp. 11.

Francis, N 2015, Conservatives fudge Council of Europe declaration 1859, DyingForChoice.com, viewed 2 Jun 2015, <http://www.dyingforchoice.com/f-files/conservatives-fudge-council-europe-declaration-1859>.

Parliament of Belgium 2002, 'The Belgian Act on Euthanasia of May 28th 2002 (unofficial English translation)', Ethical Perspectives, vol. 9, no. 2-3, pp. 182-188.

Stayner, G 2014, Victorian election 2014: Electorate overwhelmingly back voluntary euthanasia, Vote Compass reveals, ABC News, viewed 4 Dec 2014, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-11-23/victorians-back-voluntary-euthanasia-vote-compass/5910668>.

Uniting Church in Australia 2011, Australian Christian Lobby does not represent all Australian Christians, nor all Christian viewpoints, 8 Dec, Media Room, viewed 11 Dec 2011, <http://blogs.victas.uca.org.au/mediaroom/?p=971>.


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The opinion piece in The Age.

In today’s Fairfax press, Sydney woman Mary Ticinovic advances a number of reasons as to why she believes that assisted dying is not merciful. The by-line identifies her as a “clinical psychologist”. But her arguments are not founded on the basic tenets of psychology. How so?

Read Mary’s opinion piece in The Age

All life is precious

Mary argues that to support assisted dying is to go “against the principle that all life is precious.” She offers no substantive explanation, invoking the notion of ‘human worth’, stating that it exists regardless of the health state or suffering of the person, and complaining that assisted dying promotes the idea that “your life is no longer worth living”.

These are not psychological arguments. We can agree that life is precious. But reluctantly deciding to hasten one’s death in the face of intolerable and unrelievable terminal suffering doesn’t negate that preciousness. Indeed, to some people, choosing assisted dying can evidence the preciousness of one’s very capacities and values as a human.

Whose standards?

Mary further muses over “by whose standards would we judge if life is not worthwhile any more”, as though this is only some vague theoretical argument amongst philosophers or doctors. This is not a psychological argument, either. Under assisted dying law reform, it is only the dying individual’s world-view and circumstances that determine whether he or she feels life is worth living: not anyone else. General philosophical theory doesn’t come into it.

She further argues that assisted dying “promotes a utilitarian view of humanity”. This is not a psychological argument, either. Nor is it valid. Indeed, legalised assisted dying respects the very nature of the diversity of humanity by enabling the world-views many people hold most dear: that of making rational choices consistent with their own beliefs, values and circumstances. Some patients, for example in Oregon, are deeply religious and believe that their God is compassionate and understands and respects their choice to avoid intolerable suffering. That’s not utilitarian at all.

Harm and the Hippocratic Oath

Mary invokes the Hippocratic Oath said by her medical friends to oblige doctors to “do no harm” and that the medical role is “in healing and helping the patient to be restored to health.” This is simplistic nonsense, not a psychological argument.

Firstly, doctors do harm all the time: think of surgical procedures or chemotherapy. Many medical interventions do harm, but we accept the harm because we expect there to be a commensurately greater good as a result.

Secondly, medical practice cannot always “restore the patient to health” as Mary exclusively puts it. What then? The dying patient may judge that the unrelievable suffering they will experience along the path to death is a greater harm than dying a little earlier. And, doctors also have a primary duty to relieve suffering, which Mary doesn’t mention. What is under review is whether a doctor may participate in the relief of intolerable and unrelievable suffering— by hastening death—if the patient believes this is the lesser harm.

Thirdly, the Hippocratic Oath is around 2,300 years old. It requires doctors to swear allegiance to ancient Greek gods. It forbids women from becoming doctors. It requires current doctors to train the next generation free of charge, and it forbids surgery. Contemporary doctors don’t take it, and it’s certainly not “part of training” as Mary mistakenly states.

None of these are psychology arguments.

'Sucker’s choice'

Mary then argues that requiring dying patients to endure until the end promotes—and that assisted dying prevents—“fostering gratitude”, “reconciling hurts or differences with family members or friends” and “showing them strategies or different ways to approach their pain and suffering”.

But, in jurisdictions where assisted dying is legal, for example in Oregon in the USA, these are precisely things that are encouraged under assisted dying. Doctors are required to inform applicants of available medical and palliative interventions. Family gathers on notice of an anticipated death, music and poetry is shared, and expressions of love, devotion and gratitude are exchanged.

If a dying patient has no intention of reconciling with family or reflecting on approaches to dealing with their pain and suffering under an assisted dying law, precisely the same intention applies to the current regime that requires the patient to endure until the end. To assume a difference is a false dichotomy.

Obligatory compassion

Mary also argues that assisted dying ought to remain outlawed because “nursing a sick loved one is a way to give back”. This is yet another specious non-psychology argument. It promotes the ‘right’ of the ‘nurse’ to express love and devotion through ‘caring interventions’ at the expense of the dying patient’s own world view and deeply-held wish for a hastened death. Now who’s being utilitarian?

The upshot

I ran Mary’s opinion piece past an experienced psychologist, who described it as little to do with psychology. Note that neither of us has experience of or is commenting on Mary’s expertise as a clinical psychologist: she may indeed be a very good one.

My associate wondered out loud if Mary’s arguments were based more on underlying religious views than anything else. I agreed: they seemed to me remarkably consistent with the arguments advanced by religious opponents, even though they avoided directly religious words. So I did a little research.

It turns out that Mary is a committed and active Sydney Catholic.* Evidence abounds of her devotion to the Catholic tradition, and I commend her for her conscientious reflective practice and participation in it.

However, I argue that neither the stated psychological qualification nor the unstated religious affiliation make the offered arguments valid.

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* By way of fairness, I place on the record that I am agnostic.


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The Council of Europe chamber in session.

On the 25th January 2012, the Council of Europe passed declaration 1859 on advance care planning. Immediately, lobbyists opposed to assisted dying loudly proclaimed that the resolution banned euthanasia across Europe, when it did nothing of the sort. What actually happened?

Declaration 1859 on advance care planning

The Strasbourg-based Council of Europe passed declaration 1859 on 25th January 2012. The declaration was about advance care planning, which allows patients to inform others about what treatments they would or wouldn't want if they become unable to participate in treatment decision-making.

The declaration made the explicit point that it was about advance care planning and not about euthanasia or assisted suicide.  It made the point that non-voluntary euthanasia is unacceptable—that is, that others should not make death-hastening decisions about a person for their 'alleged benefit'. This is an important point on which both sides of the assisted dying debate can agree.

Council of Europe resolutions are informative to members, but are not binding.

Misstatements by opponents of assisted dying

Despite this simplicity and clarity, the very next day after the vote, a host of conservative religious organisations and commentators began trumpeting that "the Council of Europe banned euthanasia across Europe." It started with the Catholic Church (through its online service Zenit) and sprinted right around the world in a matter of days—even appearing eventually in a professional journal paper two and a half years later.

What really happened: the evidence

But no matter how often and how loudly lobbyists try to claim that the Council of Europe banned euthanasia across europe, it did nothing of the sort.

Read the forensic analysis of the misinformation trail in the F files, here.


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