United Kingdom

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

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

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

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

BMA comprehensively out of touch

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

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

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

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

Ignorant and disrespectful BMA stance

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

Appalling and trivialised ‘rationale’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hubris argues for ignoring the BMA itself

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

References

  1. British Medical Association 2016, Physician-assisted dying: BMA policy, viewed 26 Sep 2016, https://www.bma.org.uk/advice/employment/ethics/ethics-a-to-z/physician-assisted-dying.
  2. Seale, C 2009, 'Legalisation of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide: survey of doctors' attitudes', Palliative Medicine, 23(3), Apr, pp. 205-212.
  3. McCormack, R, Clifford, M & Conroy, M 2011, 'Attitudes of UK doctors towards euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide: a systematic literature review', Palliative Medicine, 26(1), pp. 23-33.
  4. Catholic Medical Quarterly 2003, 'Euthanasia and assisted suicide: Results of survey of doctors attitudes', Catholic Medical Quarterly, May, pp. 1-3.
  5. Hastings Center Report 1996, 'The goals of medicine. Setting new priorities', The Hastings Center Report, 26(6), pp. S1-27.
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BMA House in Tavistock Square, London, home to the British Medical Association since 1925.

A meeting has been held at BMA House in Tavistock Square, the home of the British Medical Association since 1925, to discuss assisted dying law reform.1

The meeting, chaired by Lord Moynihan and attended by eminent doctors, dignitaries and the President of the Free Church Council, discussed and voted on the motion:

"That in the interests of humanity it is desirable that voluntary euthanasia subject to adequate safeguards should be legalized for persons desiring it who are suffering from incurable, fatal, and painful disease."

Familiar arguments for and against were proffered by a range of speakers. In addition a range of letters of support and apologies for inability to attend in person were read, from Lord Ponsonby, Sir Frederick Menzies, Sir P. Varrier-Jones, Mr McAdam Eccles, Sir John Robertson, Sir Arnold Wilson MP, Miss Eleanor Rathbone MP, and a small number of well-known clergy.

Rev. Norwood, President of the National Free Church Council, strongly supported the motion.

The motion was put to the vote and passed by a majority of ten to one.

The year? 1935.

The meeting established the Voluntary Euthanasia Legalization Society of the UK.

Subscription to the Society was set at a minimum of five shillings (about £57, US$76 or AUD$100 in today's money), but this was once only and not annually, "for it was hoped the society would soon disappear, owing to the success of its efforts."

Founding members were just a little over-optimistic.

-----

1. Fleming, RA 1935, 'Voluntary Euthanasia', British Medical Journal, vol. 2, no. 3910, p. 1181.

 


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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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Around the world, doctors help patients with assisted dying, regardless of whether it is legal in their jurisdiction or not.

For example, in Australia, where assisted dying is illegal, research reveals that assisted dying is widely practiced. Many Australian nurses have collaborated with doctors to provide assisted dying, and have occasionally even done so without consulting a doctor (Kuhse & Singer 1993). Nurses in New Zealand also provide assisted dying, sometimes without consulting a doctor (Malpas, Mitchell & Koschwanez 2015; Mitchell & Owens 2004).

"Euthanasia is common. It's practiced out of sight, under wraps, no regulation, no rules, no supervision." Prof. Peter Baum (Baum 2001)

Professor Baum's statement is borne out by scientific research. A national survey of Australian doctors in 1996 found that 1.9% of deaths were the result of voluntary euthanasia (VE) or physician-assisted dying (PAD) (Kuhse et al. 1997). By comparison, the rate in the Netherlands in 1995 (the closest year of empirical research data) was 2.6% (Onwuteaka-Philipsen et al 2012). The rate of medically assisted deaths in Australia, where the practice is illegal, was three quarters the rate of the Netherlands, where the practice is legal.

Dutch and Australian assisted dying rates comparedSimilarly, Douglas and colleagues (2001) surveyed Australian surgeons, finding that more than a third had provided drugs with the intention to hasten patient death, and with more than half of cases lacking an express request from the patient.

Forms of medically assisted dying have been found to occur not only in Australia (and in the Netherlands where it has been lawful for decades), but in Belgium prior to its law reform (Chambaere et al. 2015); Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Italy (van der Heide et al. 2003); the UK (Seale 2009a; Seale 2009b); the USA (Back et al. 1996; Bonn 2000; Emanuel, Fairclough & Clarridge 1996; Lachman 2010; Schwarz 2003; Schwarz 2004); France (Riou et al. 2015); Norway (Forde & Aasland 2014; Forde, Aasland & Falkum 1997); and even in conservative Greece (Voultsos, Njau & Vlachou 2010); Northern Ireland (McGlade 2000) and Pakistan (Imran et al. 2014).

Indeed, "euthanasia is performed worldwide, regardless of the existence of laws governing it" (Gastmans et al. 2006), "in all countries studied" (Muller, Kimsma & Van Der Wal 1998), "albeit in a secretive manner" (Rosenfeld 2000), "in the privacy of their [doctor-patient] relationship" (Cassell 1995), with repeated involvement of some physicians (Smith 2007), and frequent failure to adhere to high standards when illegal (Emanuel et al 1998).

Even Dr Brendan Nelson, while President of the Australian Medical Association, acknowledged that he had helped hasten the death of a patient. He stated that in the "2 percent of cases" where there was no hope of recovery, that "patients, their families and their doctors make those decisions [for euthanasia]" though clandestinely, because "technically it would be illegal" (Nelson 1995).

 

nelsoneuthanasiasecretsmall.jpg

AMA's President, Brendan Nelson, in 1995.

 
The evidence is irrefutable: there is underground assisted dying worldwide
and it demonstrates that there is a profound need for assisted dying law reform to allow dying patients the right to seek a peaceful hastened death, and to protect doctors and nurses who provide that assistance. Law reform would also force assisted dying from the dark shadows, creating transparency and accountability around the process, which would then be open to discussion and improvement if required.

Intolerable and unrelievable patient suffering drives underground assisted dying across the world in jurisdictions where it is illegal, with no standards of practice or transparent oversight.

 

References

Back, AL, Wallace, JI, Starks, HE & Pearlman, RA 1996, 'Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in Washington State: Patient requests and physician responses', JAMA, vol. 275, no. 12, pp. 919-925.

Baum, P 2001, ABC News, TV broadcast 23 Jan, ABC, Sydney.

Bonn, D 2000, 'Support for euthanasia falls as care of dying patients improves', The Lancet Oncology, vol. 1, no. 3, p. 133.

Cassell, EJ 1995, 'Treating the patient's subjective state', Pain Forum, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 186-188.

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, vol. 372, no. 12, pp. 1179-1181.

Douglas, C, Kerridge, IH, Rainbird, KJ, McPhee, JR, Hancock, L & Spigelman, AD 2001, 'The intention to hasten death: a survey of attitudes and practices of surgeons in Australia', Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 175, no. 10, pp. 511-515.

Emanuel, EJ, Daniels, ER, Fairclough, DL & Clarridge, BR 1998, 'The practice of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in the United States: adherence to proposed safeguards and effects on physicians', JAMA, vol. 280, no. 6, pp. 507-513.

Emanuel, EJ, Fairclough, DL & Clarridge, BR 1996, 'Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide: Attitudes and experiences of oncology patients, oncologists, and the public', Lancet, vol. 347, no. 9018, pp. 1805-1810.

Forde, R & Aasland, OG 2014, 'Are end-of-life practices in Norway in line with ethics and law?', Acta Anaesthesiol Scand, Aug 14.

Forde, R, Aasland, OG & Falkum, E 1997, 'The ethics of euthanasia -- attitude and practice maong Norwegian physicians', Social Science & Medicine, vol. 45, no. 6, pp. 887-982.

Gastmans, C, Lemiengre, J, van der Wal, G, Schotsmans, P & Dierckx de Casterle, B 2006, 'Prevalence and content of written ethics policies on euthanasia in Catholic healthcare institutions in Belgium (Flanders)', Health Policy, vol. 76, no. 2, pp. 169-78.

Imran, N, Haider, II, Jawaid, M & Mazhar, N 2014, 'Health ethics education: Knowledge, attitudes and practice of healthcare ethics among interns and residents in Pakistan', Journal of Postgraduate Medical Institute, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 383-389.

Kuhse, H & Singer, P 1993, 'Voluntary euthanasia and the nurse: an Australian survey', International Journal of Nursing Studies, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 311-322.

Kuhse, H, Singer, P, Baume, P, Clark, M & Rickard, M 1997, 'End-of-life decisions in Australian medical practice', Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 166, no. 4, pp. 191-196.

Lachman, V 2010, 'Physician-assisted suicide: compassionate liberation or murder?', Medsurg nursing : official journal of the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 121-125.

Malpas, P, Mitchell, K & Koschwanez, H 2015, 'End-of-life medical decision making in general practice in New Zealand—13 years on', New Zealand Medical Journal, vol. 128, no. 1418, pp. 27-39.

McGlade, KJ, Slaney, L, Bunting, BP & Gallagher, AG 2000, 'Voluntary euthanasia in Northern Ireland: General practitioners' beliefs, experiences, and actions', British Journal of General Practice, vol. 50, no. 459, pp. 794-797.

Mitchell, K & Owens, G 2004, 'End of life decision-making by New Zealand general practitioners: A national survey', New Zealand Medical Journal, vol. 117, no. 1196, pp. 1-11.

Muller, MT, Kimsma, GK & Van Der Wal, G 1998, 'Euthanasia and assisted suicide: Facts, figures and fancies with special regard to old age', Drugs and Aging, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 185-191.

Nelson, B 1995, 'Euthanasia a family affair says top doc', The Sunday Territorian, Darwin, 21 May.

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.

Riou, F, Aubry, R, Pontone, S & Pennec, S 2015, 'When physicians report having used medical drugs to deliberately end a patient's life: Findings of the "end-of-life in France" survey', Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, vol. 50, no. 2, pp. 208-215.

Rosenfeld, B 2000, 'Assisted suicide, depression, and the right to die', Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 467-488.

Schwarz, JK 2003, 'Understanding and responding to patients' requests for assistance in dying', Journal of Nursing Scholarship, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 377-384.

Schwarz, JK 2004, 'Responding to persistent requests for assistance in dying: a phenomenological inquiry', International Journal of Palliative Nursing, vol. 10, no. 5, pp. 225-235.

Seale, C 2009a, 'End-of-life decisions in the UK involving medical practitioners', Palliat Med, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 198-204.

Seale, C 2009b, 'Hastening death in end-of-life care: a survey of doctors', Social Science & Medicine, vol. 69, no. 11, pp. 1659-1666.

Smith, SW 2007, 'Some realism about end of life: The current prohibition and the euthanasia underground', American Journal of Law and Medicine, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 55-95.

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, vol. 362, no. 9381, pp. 345-350.

Voultsos, P, Njau, SN & Vlachou, M 2010, 'The issue of euthanasia in Greece from a legal viewpoint', J Forensic Leg Med, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 131-6.

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It was inevitable, the latest attempt by senior British clergy to persuade politicians to reject Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill. Led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby—whose predecessor Lord Carey now supports the reform—nine clergy sent a letter to ‘remind’ Parliament of supposed terrible consequences.

So what points did the clerics offer to Parliamentarians, and are they valid? Let’s take a look at each of the five ‘reasons’ advanced in order to deny Brits assisted dying choice.

Firstly, the clerics argue that the ‘answer’ is palliative care. Britain boasts the world’s gold standard in palliative care practice and it’s a great credit to practitioners. But the medical literature as well as the experience of the dying and their loved ones is conclusive: palliative care simply can’t always help. Experts say that “relief of suffering remains an elusive goal for many patients” and it’s “clear that improving palliative care will not remove the need for legalizing assisted dying.”

The premise of palliative care is to provide interventions. However, sometimes, not only does interventionism fail to help, it can itself be a source of suffering. And the individual may not want interventions, but rather to alight from the train of terminal illness one or two stops before the inevitable and intolerable terminus.

Secondly, the clerics argue that jurisdictions with assisted dying laws are facing serious problems, including wrongly claiming that the Dutch are now campaigning to include dementia as a basis to seek an assisted death. This right has been enshrined in Dutch law through advance care directives since 2002. In practice, the request is largely declined by doctors.

The clerics complain that dying patients in assisted dying jurisdictions are now using the law—hardly a surprising outcome given the proportion of people now dying of cancer in their later years.

They complain about supposed ‘doctor shopping’ in Oregon. If the patient’s first (or second) doctor declines a request to consider an assisted death on the basis of the doctor’s own convictions, are these clerics suggesting that the patient ought to have their right to lawful assessment denied, because their first doctor or two were religiously opposed?

Thirdly, the clerics argue that the majority of doctors are opposed to assisted dying law reform, ironically pointing out that a quarter to a third of doctors support reform. Why should Brits be denied a choice because two thirds of doctors currently won’t participate in that choice? (What proportion of doctors would participate in abortions, currently legal?) And doctors—who make up fewer than one in two hundred Brits—don’t elect Parliament, so why are their diverse views a case for outright denial?

Let’s name this argument for what it is: an appeal to apparent ‘authority’. Clerical ‘authorities’ (who don’t represent their flocks who are overwhelmingly in favour of reform) are making an appeal of medical ‘authorities’ as the reason to reject something the public believes should be a right. Paternalism indeed.

The fourth argument spreads an icing of hubris on the cake of objections. The clerics argue that the public really don’t understand and don’t know what they mean when the great majority keep saying ‘yes’ to repeated polls on assisted dying law reform.

Public opinion in fact demonstrates the opposite of gullibility: rejection of the attempted scare campaigns of religious ‘authorities’.

Fifthly (and thankfully lastly), the clerics argue that a right to choose assisted dying will inevitably become a duty to choose it. If the theory that ‘a right becomes a duty’ were an argument to reject one right, then all rights would necessarily be rejected on precisely the same principle.

Enshrined in the Mental Capacity Act 2005, Brits already have a right to refuse any medical treatment, even if life-saving. A Jehovah’s Witness may refuse a simple blood transfusion. An elderly person may refuse burdensome surgery. Yet the right to refuse treatment can theoretically become a duty to refuse, in exactly the same manner.

If the clerics genuinely believe their theory then they would argue to Parliament with equal force that the right to refuse medical treatment should be rescinded. Why don’t they?

The real reason for opposing the assisted dying Bill appears in the letter’s preamble: the clerics “hold all human life sacred”, in other words, a ‘gift from God’. Yet contemporary British Social Attitudes surveys reveal that the majority of Brits are not religious.

So the real question for the Parliament is this: should indefensible arguments put forward by a few clerical ‘authorities’ form a basis for denying choice wanted by the overwhelming majority of voters?


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