Victoria

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Victorian MP Daniel Mulino's minority report contains multiple serious errors and misinformation.

Last year, the Victorian Parliament's Legal and Social Issues Committee concluded an extensive investigation into end of life choices, publishing a report of over 400 pages recommending improvements to palliative care and for assisted dying. Catholic-backed Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association (‘shoppies’ union) Labor member of the Victorian Parliament Mr Daniel Mulino furnished his own minority report, opposing the majority recommendation for assisted dying law reform. That’s entirely his right. However, his report contains multiple, serious cases of misinformation. He must withdraw his report.

Daniel Mulino, Labor parliamentary member for the Victorian Region of Eastern Victoria,1 and a member of the Catholic-backed ‘shoppies’ union,2 was a member of the Legal and Social Issues Committee that thoroughly investigated end of life decision making and produced a 400+ page report in 2016 making recommendations for law reform and regulation.

Mr Mulino furnished a “minority report” as an addendum to the main report in order to oppose the Committee’s recommendation that assisted dying be legalised.3

Promoted by Catholics to Catholics

Mr Paul Russell, South Australian publisher of the Catholic anti-euthanasia website ‘HOPE,’§ says this of Mr Mulino’s minority report in the Catholic lawyer association’s blog:4

Daniel Mulino MLC's analysis should be read first, before the Majority Report. It forms not only a sound academic and rigorous approach but also, by implication, is damning of the narrow, outcome focus of the Majority Report.”

How sweet of Mr Russell to so generously plug Mr Mulino’s report. But, in gushing about the ‘sound academic and rigorous approach’ he claims to be in it, shows that he doesn't understand what constitutes proper and sound evidence, and that he's easily impressed by charts and lots of ‘literature’ citations.

Numerous fundamental faults

The reality is very different.

Rather than bore you with a mind-numbing blow-by-blow dissertation on the numerous fundamental faults in Mr Mulino’s report, I’ll demonstrate how the report cherry-picks, misquotes and misunderstands its way through the evidence, via four revealing examples.

Example 1. Cherry-picking ‘helpful’ data

Mr Mulino’s minority report illustrates the rise in number of assisted deaths in the Netherlands and Belgium, and produces some statistics (Figures 1 & 2 are directly from his minority report).

mulinocharts1and2.gif Figures 1 and 2 (of Mr Mulino’s minority report): Assisted deaths in Belgium and the Netherlands

Note that Belgian data is for the years 2003–15, but the Netherlands only for the years 2008–15. That’s odd, because the euthanasia Acts for both countries came into effect in 2002, and so 2003 was the first full year for both.

Mr Mulino doesn’t point out that his report treats the two countries differentially, and provides no explanation as to why. We might notice, however, that the dicrepancy has the consequence of making his claims look 'better.'

Using Mr Mulino’s presentation style, Figure 3 illustrates all the relevant data for the Netherlands.

netherlandsfullfig2.gif Figure 3: The full Netherlands data
Source: Official Euthanasia Commission reports

As you can see, there is a virtual flatline between 2003 and 2007. Indeed, there is even a tiny drop in numbers between 2005–06. This is an inconvenient truth to Mr Mulino’s thesis that there has been a consistent massive rise in numbers. It also substantially reduces the compound annual growth rate he wrongly quotes for just 2008–15.

He’s also cherry-picked only raw data. In fact, the only valid way to compare year to year, and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, is to use the rate for each year: that is, the number of assisted deaths as a proportion of total deaths in the same year and jurisdiction, so that you’re comparing apples with apples. It's necessary because the total deaths count goes down and (mostly) up a bit each year. The official government statistics for total deaths by year for both countries are readily available online, so there’s no excuse for not using them.

When you calculate the rates, you get validly-comparable results, as I illustrate in Figure 4.

dutchbelgianratesto2015.gifFigure 4: Rate of assisted dying as a percent off all deaths in the Netherlands and Belgium 2003–2015
Sources: Official government statistics; Euthanasia Commission reports

As I explain in my detailed research whitepaper on Benelux assisted dying,5 these are sigmoid (stretched-S) shaped curves which are typical of human behaviour change. And there is a drop in the rate in both countries in 2015, which Mr Mulino doesn’t report.

My Benelux whitepaper also reports the data from Luxembourg (Figure 5), which Mr Mulino fails to mention, even though it has legislation, since 2009, almost identical to the Netherlands and Belgium, and the Luxembourg government's data is freely available online.

dutchbelgianluxratesto2015.gifFigure 5: Rate of assisted dying in the three lawful Benelux countries
Sources: Official government statistics; Euthanasia Commission reports

Luxembourg’s data (yellow in Figure 5; no data available yet for 2015), is also an inconvenient truth to the case Mr Mulino attempts to prosecute. There’s no substantial rise.

Example 2. Comparing apples with oranges: mis-matching data

Mr Mulino again fails to compare apples with apples. Take, for example, his vocal claim that the annual total death counts for the Netherlands decreased at the same time as the total counts for assisted dying increased.

When you look at the data he’s used (the citation for the negative total deaths trend he quotes in his Table 2), you find that he’s used total death data for 2000­–10, which is falling, while his assisted dying data is for 2008­–15, which is rising.

This just isn’t on: it’s completely invalid to compare data like this from one period with data from another period to claim or imply a causal relationship. Of what possible relevance is the total death data for 2000–02, while his total deaths data for 2011–15 is missing? I illustrate the full story in Figure 6.

 

mulinomismatcheddata.gifFigure 6: Netherlands total and assisted deaths for different periods
Sources: Official government statistics; Euthanasia Commission reports

The solid blue and orange lines are data Mr Mulino used and reported, and their dotted ends are data that he omitted. It’s easy to see that the total deaths data his report inappropriately relies upon has a negative (downwards) slope (left-hand blue dashes), while the matching total deaths data he should have used has a positive (upwards) slope (right-hand blue dashes). Valid comparison gives lie to his claim.

Example 3. White is the new black: Misquoting the opposite

Mr Mulino’s report also argues that there’s ample evidence that a significant proportion of people with depression are gaining access to assisted dying:

“Ganzini et al, in a broad ranging review of instances of assisted dying in Oregon, found that twenty percent of the patients had symptoms of depression.” [Italics mine]

This assertion is nonchalantly plucked from the review6 without reading it properly, seemingly to support his thesis. In fact, the source does the exact opposite. Figure 7 is an image of the Abstract, where it says in large print, right up front:

Twenty percent of the patients had symptoms of depression; none of these patients received a prescription for a lethal medication.” [Emphasis is mine]

ganziniabstract2000.gifFigure 7: The paper Abstract articulates exactly the opposite of Mr Mulino’s claim
Source: Ganzini et al 20006

Had Mr Mulino bothered to read either the abstract or the methodology of this study properly, he would have realised that the doctor sample was of those eligible to prescribe under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, not just those who had, and that none of the study's patients who were assessed with possible depression had accessed an assisted death.

It's not like the information was hard to find — his report cites literally half a sentence to support his claim, when the full sentence says the opposite.

Example 4. Any port in a storm: Cherry-picking, misunderstanding and misrepresenting out-of-date data

In attempting to establish a 'slippery slope' from voluntary, to non-voluntary euthanasia (NVE) — a practice where doctors may hasten death (e.g. by administering increasing doses of opioids) when the patient hasn’t explicitly requested it — Mr Mulino states in his minority report:

“Two countries with the highest rates of this type of end-of-life (Belgium at 1.5% and the Netherlands at 0.60%) allowed the practice of euthanasia and assisted dying.”

Oh dear, Mr Mulino's report cherry-picks again. Just look at his source.7 The study, published in 2003, contains Table 2, with the relevant data in it (Figure 8).

vanderheide2003table2.gifFigure 8: Table 2 from the 2003 study Mr Mulino cites
Source: van der Heide et al 20037

There are no fewer than five major offences Mr Mulino commits here.

Firstly, look at the table. I’ve highlighted the line in yellow from which Mr Mulino draws his figures of 1.5% for Belgium and 0.60% for the Netherlands. You can immediately and easily see that Denmark’s rate of 0.67% is higher than the Netherlands' of 0.60%.

So, Mr Mulino’s statement mentioning only Belgium and the Netherlands with “highest NVE rates” is misleading. He failed to either report or explain why Denmark’s rate is higher than the Netherlands, while Denmark doesn’t have an assisted dying law; the opposite of his thesis.

Secondly, he also fails to mention Switzerland’s NVE rate of 0.42%, or to explain that it’s lower than the Netherlands and Belgium. That’s highly relevant, because Switzerland has the world’s oldest assisted dying law — in effect since 1942 — and its statute contains none of the safeguards in the Belgian and Dutch Acts. This too is at odds with Mr Mulino’s thesis.

Thirdly, if Mr Mulino had read the study properly instead of just cherry-picking convenient figures from it, he would have noticed in the methodology section that the fieldwork (doctors filling in questionnaires) was completed in 2001 and early 2002, that is, before either the Netherlands or Belgian Acts came into effect later in 2002 (the Netherlands in April and Belgium in September).

Thus, the Dutch and Belgian data points Mr Mulino advances as ‘evidence’ of an NVE ‘slippery slope’ from legislated assisted dying have nothing whatever to do with assisted deaths under their Euthanasia Acts, because neither Act existed at the time the study was conducted.

Fourthly, he is resorting here to a single point-in-time study, which has little to no scientific power to establish ‘causation’. To really establish causation, as a minimum you have to assess longitudinal data, which I show in Figure 9. It demonstrates the precise opposite of Mr Mulino's ‘slippery slope’ thesis that voluntary euthanasia causes NVE, which if true would lead to a significant increase in the NVE rate in both countries after statutory legalisation.

dutchbelgianuknverates.gifFigure 9: Longitudinal NVE rates in the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK
Sources: Netherlands8; Belgium9; UK10

Both the Dutch and Belgian NVE rates have dropped with high statistical significance since their euthanasia Acts came into effect. Indeed, the NVE rate in the Netherlands is now similar to the rate in the UK, which is acknowledged as the world’s gold standard in palliative care and which has never had an assisted dying law. This is consistent with assisted dying law reform shining a bright light on all end of life practices.

It’s not like he simply didn’t know

Fifthly, it’s particularly disappointing that Mr Mulino’s report only cherry-picked outdated data in an attempt to ‘prove’ his case when I had already directly furnished the current relevant evidence to his Committee as a properly-researched formal submission: Figure 9 above is Figure 19 in my submission, and I provided the peer-reviewed research citations for the data.11

Not only that, but the official transcript of my appearance as an expert witness before the parliamentary Committee confirms that Mr Mulino specifically quizzed me on that Figure 19 and I pointed out the sources of its data:12

Mr MULINO — Figure 19, for example.

Mr FRANCIS — The reference should be in the text. The last sentence on the previous page gives you the citations for that data.

Mr MULINO — Okay.”

Even further, when fellow-Committee-member and Catholic assisted dying opponent Mrs Inga Peulich asked about the same thing (with Mr Mulino present) — “1,000 of those who have been accidentally euthanased in the Netherlands” — I literally put the chart up on the projection screen and explained it in full to the Committee until they had no more questions. The “1000” figure is the approximate rate prior to the Dutch Euthanasia Act, while the rate has dropped significantly since.

The evidence is irrefutable: it’s not like Mr Mulino was merely blissfully unaware of the relevant data contradicting his NVE ‘slippery slope’ claim. His minority report expressly overlooks this robust evidence and instead refers inapproriately to selective and outdated data that seemed to, but didn’t, support his argument.

Five major offences in a single citation: surely Mr Mulino’s report — far from ‘academic and rigorous’ — sets a new record?

A common religious thread?

The NVE ‘slippery slope’ claim is also popular amongst and spread by the Catholic Archdioceses of Melbourne,13 Sydney14 and Brisbane,15 as well as by other Catholic anti-assisted dying lobbyists such as Alex Schadenberg,16 Paul Russell,17 and Professor of Ethics at the Catholic University of Notre Dame Australia, Margaret Somerville.18

Indeed, Mr Mulino’s minority report appears amongst 11 Catholic responses against assisted dying law reform published by the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne (Figure 10).

cam-mulino-report.jpg Figure 10: Daniel Mulino’s minority report appears amongst Catholic responses on the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne’s website19

Indeed, Mr Mulino’s linked document doesn’t seem to emanate from his parliamentary office or from wider parliamentary services: the PDF file's metadata reveals that it was authored, electronically at least, by “mmacdonald”.

Calls to both Mr Mulino's electorate office and to the Parliament of Victoria confirm there is no "M Macdonald" at either. I did, however, find online one Matthew Macdonald, researcher and Executive Officer of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne’s (CAM) Office for Life, Marriage and Family — in other words, the same organisation that published the list in Figure 10 containing the link to Mr Mulino’s minority report.

Mr Macdonald is also listed as the CAM's official contact person in its submission (#705) opposing assisted dying to the Victorian Parliament's inquiry into end of life choices.20 Both the CAM and Mulino reports also refer to a journal paper by Catholic doctor José Pereira,21 and neither report mentions the subsequent evidential rebuttal outlining why Pereira's claims were merely "smoke and mirrors".22 Even more curiously, the Pereira paper is included in Mr Merlino's minority report bibliography, though his report doesn't actually cite it as the CAM submission does.

The CAM parliamentary submission was authorised and signed by Episcopal Vicars Anthony Ireland and Anthony Kerin, who also appeared as witnesses before the parliamentary Committee, during which they told, as I've explained, a whopping great falsehood about Oregon.23

Conclusion

Contrary to Paul Russell’s enthusiastic claim that Daniel Mulino’s minority report provides a ‘rigorous’ case against assisted dying law reform, the report merely serves as further evidence of how those implacably opposed to assisted dying can cherry-pick, misunderstand and rather desperately clutch their way through their ‘evidence.’

Mr Russell is not an academic expert and one can understand his limited capacity to judge whether work is ‘scholarly.’ However, Mr Mulino holds a PhD in economics from Yale,* so it’s quite astonishing that he published a ‘researched’ report containing multiple major flaws, including outdated and cherry-picked data contrary to more recent, direct and relevant evidence of which he was specifically aware, actively inquired into and had explained and cited to him in full.

These anomolies beg the question: did Matthew McDonald or someone else at the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne write Mr Mulino’s report for him? Mr Mulino needs to explain himself, since regardless of who authoried it, he signed it off in his own name and is therefore ultimately responsible for it.

Given the multiple fundamental errors, the honourable course for Mr Mulino to pursue is to withdraw his minority report.

The question is: will he rise to the occasion?

 

Addendum: A missed opportunity for primary research

Mr Mulino — as well as Mrs Peulich who also wrote a minority report against assisted dying — declined to join other members of the parliamentary Committee on an official overseas fact-finding tour to jurisdictions where assisted dying is lawful. This was a critical opportunity for Committee members to directly quiz proponents, opponents, researchers, regulators, legislators and others with direct experience. It would have given them invaluable opportunities to directly examine and test  assumptions, hypotheses and performance. How curious then that these two non-participataing Committee members each furnished a minority report opposing the majority recommendation to legalise assisted dying in Victoria.

 

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

§    The HOPE website is an initiative of the Australian Family Association (AFA), a faith-based organisation founded by Australia’s most famous Catholic, B. A. Santamaria. Mr Russell is a former Vice President of the AFA, and a former Senior Officer for Family and Life at the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.

*    While Mr Mulino holds a PhD and would be entitled to be addressed as “Dr”, his Parliamentary title is “Mr”.

References

  1. Parliament of Victoria 2017, Daniel Mulino, viewed 20 Mar 2017, http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/members/details/1764-daniel-mulino.
  2. Tomazin, F 2016, Explainer: The push towards a dying-with-dignity policy in Victoria, Fairfax Media, viewed 3 Dec 2016, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/explainer-the-push-towards-a-dyingwithdignity-policy-in-victoria-20161203-gt3bso.html.
  3. Legal and Social Issues Committee 2016, Inquiry into end of life choices. Final report, Parliament of Victoria, Melbourne, pp. 444.
  4. Russell, P 2016, End-of-life choices report: A sugar coated poison pill for Victoria, Melbourne Catholic Lawyers Association, viewed 14 Jun 2016, http://www.catholiclawyers.com.au/latest-news/853-end-of-life-choices-report-a-sugar-coated-poison-pill-for-victoria.
  5. Francis, N 2016, Assisted dying practice in Benelux: Whitepaper 1, DyingForChoice.com, viewed 13 Nov 2016, http://www.dyingforchoice.com/resources/fact-files/assisted-dying-benelux-whitepaper-1.
  6. Ganzini, L, Nelson, HD, Schmidt, TA, Kraemer, DF, Delorit, MA & Lee, MA 2000, 'Physicians' experiences with the Oregon Death with Dignity Act', New England Journal of Medicine, 342(8), pp. 557-563.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Seale, C 2009, 'End-of-life decisions in the UK involving medical practitioners', Palliat Med, 23(3), pp. 198-204.
  11. Francis, N 2015, Submission to the Parliament of Victoria Standing Committee on Legal and Social Issues on the Inquiry into End of Life Choices, DyingForChoice.com, Melbourne, pp. 51.
  12. Parliament of Victoria 2015, Standing Committee on Legal and Social Issues inquiry into end-of-life choices: Witness-Mr Neil Francis, DyingForChoice.com, Melbourne, pp. 10.
  13. The Catholic Leader 2010, No to euthanasia – Yes to genuine care, Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane, viewed 15 Dec 2010, http://catholicleader.com.au/analysis/no-to-euthanasia-yes-to-genuine-care_70380.
  14. Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney 2017, Experts warn against following overseas experience with euthanasia, viewed 12 Mar 2017, http://www.sydneycatholic.org/news/latest_news/2017/2017120_1449.shtml.
  15. Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane 2010, No to euthanasia - yes to genuine care, The Catholic Leader, viewed 25 Feb 2012, http://catholicleader.com.au/analysis/no-to-euthanasia-yes-to-genuine-care_70380.
  16. Schadenberg, A 2013, Exposing vulnerable people to euthanasia and assisted suicide, Ross Lattner, London ON.
  17. Russell, P 2015, Submission 926: Submission to the Victorian Legal and Social Issues Committee inquiry into end of life choices, HOPE, Melbourne, pp. 56.
  18. Francis, N 2017, Margaret Somerville misleading claim - 'Non-voluntary euthanasia slippery slope', DyingForChoice.com, viewed 19 Apr 2017, http://www.dyingforchoice.com/resources/videos/margaret-somerville-misleading-claim-non-voluntary-euthanasia-slippery-slope.
  19. Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne 2017, Why now in Victoria?, viewed 3 Aug 2017, https://www.cam.org.au/euthanasia/Be-Informed/Why-now-in-Victoria.
  20. Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne 2015, Submission to the Legal & Social Issues Committee: Inquiry into end of life choices, Submission 705, Melbourne, pp. 16.
  21. Pereira, J 2011, 'Legalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide: the illusion of safeguards and controls', Current Oncology, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. e38-48.
  22. Downie, J, Chambaere, K & Bernheim, JL 2012, 'Pereira's attack on legalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide: smoke and mirrors', Current Oncology, vol. 19, no. 3, Jun, pp. 133-8.
  23. Francis, N 2015, Catholic Church misinforms Parliamentary inquiry, DyingForChoice.com, viewed 25 Nov 2015, http://www.dyingforchoice.com/blogs/catholic-church-misinforms-parliamentary-inquiry.

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The terminally ill are not choosing between life and death, but between two ways of dying, according to their own beliefs and conscience. Photo: Andrew Drummond/AAP

In Monday’s Herald Sun, Victorian Archbishops Philip Freier and Denis Hart, and Bishops Ezekiel, Suriel, Lester Briebbenow, Bosco Puthur and Peter Stasiuk published a half-page advertisement admonishing the Victorian government for its initiative to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill, an ad similar to the one published by religious figures in 2008.

I have no quarrel with individuals of faith regarding their own private beliefs. However, the bishops’ attempt at public “leadership” through the advertisement is deserving of redress for its multiple fallacies.

The ‘abandonment’ fallacy

The bishops claimed that assisted dying “represents the abandonment of those who are in greatest need of our care and support”. On the contrary: to ignore the deeply-held beliefs and rigorously-tested wishes of people at the end of life is to abandon their values and critical faculties in favour of the bishops’ own religious dogma.

The ‘competition’ fallacy

The bishops demand there should be more funding for healthcare rather than assisted dying, fallaciously pitting one option against the other. The Victorian government is indeed increasing funding for palliative care. It’s also aiming to provide lawful assisted dying for when even the best palliative care can’t help – which Palliative Care Australia has acknowledged – giving lie to the faux competition.

The evidential fallacy

Contrary to the bishops’ false presumption that legalised assisted dying will decrease trust in “the treatment and quality of care” from doctors, scientific studies into attitude change show that more people trust doctors when assisted dying is legal. Patients can then talk openly about options, even if they decide against assisted death. The bishops have abandoned facts in favour of religious assumptions.

The equivalence fallacy

The bishops refer to assisted dying as “government endorsed suicide”. They fallaciously equate a reasoned, tested and accompanied decision for a peaceful assisted death in the face of a terminal illness, with the impulsive, violent, isolated and regrettable suicide of individuals (many of whom have mental health and substance abuse issues) who are failing to cope with problems that can be addressed.

However, while the latter are choosing between life and death, the terminally ill are choosing not between life and death, but between two different ways of dying, according to their own beliefs and conscience. Rigorous 2016 research from Australian National University shows that the vast majority (79%) of Victorians support assisted dying choice for the terminally ill (with just 8% opposed), clearly distinguishing it from general suicide.

Shame on the bishops for disrespectfully equating the two.

The inconsistency fallacy

They also argue that assisted dying ought to remain prohibited because within healthcare, “mistakes happen and the vulnerable are exploited,” and “that in spite of our best efforts, our justice system could never guarantee” no one would die by mistake or false evidence. However, as I’ve pointed out before, an identical hypothetical problem exists under the refusal of life-saving medical treatment, a statutory right that Victorians have enjoyed for nearly 30 years. The statute has only three “safeguard” requirements, yet even those only apply if the refusal is formally documented, but not if it’s verbal.

Further, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops directs that patients may refuse treatment if it imposes “excessive expense on the family or community,” yet makes no mention of the hypothetical “vulnerability” of the patient to be persuaded so, nor directs any requirements to assess the veracity of the refusal.

In stark contrast, the Victorian proposal for assisted dying legislation contains more than 60 safeguards and oversights.

The bishops are at risk of ridicule for such a gargantuan flip-flop: supporting the refusal of life-saving treatment with little or no oversight, while vocally opposing assisted dying legislation that mandates an armada of protections.

The not-so-hidden agenda

The bishops’ methods are rather unsubtle – hoping that these arguments, erroneous but carefully crafted to avoid any religious connotations, will be accepted as non-religious. Yet religion is writ large across their plea: as signatories to the letter they are all clerics employed directly and centrally in the promotion of their religions.

The authority fallacy

They might also rely on their religious status to convey gravity and authority to their pleas. Yet as people paid to do a job, like anyone else, their titles grant them no special privileges in lecturing Victorians about how they should die in the face of a terminal illness.

According to the 2016 census, just 23% of Victorians identified as Catholic, 9% as Anglican, 0.5% as Lutheran, and the other bishops’ signatory denominations so small as to not appear separately in the government’s statistics. Combined, the bishops’ faiths represent around 33% of the Victorian population, while 32% of Victorians identify with no faith at all. Surely the bishops are not arguing that they’re speaking for these other Victorians, too?

But the bishops don’t represent the views of their own flocks, either. According to the 2016 ANU study, 89% of non-religious Victorians support assisted dying law reform, as do 78% of Victorian Catholics and Anglicans. Indeed, opposition to assisted dying exists mostly among those who attend religious services once a week or more often – that is, those who are frequently exposed institutional religious messages of opposition – yet who comprise just 12% of Australians and 11% of Victorians.

Minding their own flocks

Australians are abandoning religion in droves. For example, when Freier ascended to the top job of Anglican Primate of Australia in 2006, some 19% of Australians identified as Anglican (2006 census). A decade later under his leadership, the 2016 census showed a drop of about a third to just 13%, and in Victoria, his home territory, to just 9%.

Hart’s Catholic church has experienced a drop in affiliation too, and it’s likely to continue and accelerate as Australians react with shock and disgust to the extent of child sexual abuse that the royal commission has exposed from under his organisation’s “pastoral umbrella”.

In conclusion, rather than bishops lecturing the government and Victorians with fallacious and faintly desperate arguments about the choices they shouldn’t have at the end of life, attending to their own flocks may be more useful Christian leadership.

May their God go with them in that endeavour.

 

This article was originally published in The Guardian.


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Research results must be judged in relation to the study's methodology.

In his latest blog, titled “Who are you going to trust?”, anti-assisted dying lobbyist Mr Paul Russell says:

“Polling noted today in the Australian shows a significant level of distrust in our political classes to get the issue of euthanasia and assisted dying right.”

He then goes on to quote some select statistics from said poll. In his blog, he mentions nothing about the sponsorship or conduct of the poll. After some searching, I found no other reference to said poll on his ‘HOPE’ website.

This is rather curious, because The Australian article he quotes, points out that the ‘poll’ was commissioned by him (his website is called ‘HOPE’).

Thus, Mr Russell tries to add credibility to his ‘poll results’ in his blog by citing only that it has been reported in a national newspaper. This ‘quote-someone-else-so-it-must-be-authoritative’ rhetorical strategy has been used before by opponents of assisted dying (see Box at end).

But as Mr Russell has himself promoted — happily republishing the opinion of the CEO of Christian Medical Fellowship (UK) — “opinion polls add up to very little.” That’s quite true… when they’re poorly designed and run, including the big no-no, ‘push-polling’, in which the researcher attempts to get the answer they want by crafting questions more likely to get it.

I searched hard for any reference to the methodology of said ‘poll’, but was unable to identify any despite a diligent search. Therefore, we don’t know what approach Mr Russell took: robust or otherwise.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument (and the absence of public evidence) that a poll of some kind was actually conducted. If it were a truly legitimate poll, you’d think that Mr Russell would be shouting about the study from his own rooftop (the ‘HOPE’ website). But so far, he hasn’t.

Mr Russell, while quoting statistics, has said absolutely nothing about the methodology — that I can find via a quite diligent search.

Results can only be interpreted in light of how the research was actually conducted, so quoting a 'study' while failing to publish its methodology in full is an absolute no-no. It only invites derision.

Rebecca Urban, for The Australian, quotes a number of ‘statistics’ from the ‘poll’ seemingly without question. But she’s hardly to blame: she’s skilled at journalism, not primary research.

So, for the benefit of Paul Russell, Rebecca Urban and all journalists reporting claimed statistics, here’s your minimum standard of conduct if the public are not to guffaw at the claims. All reported results must be in relation to properly disclosed methodology:

  • Who commissioned the research? (✔ Ms Urban reports who)
  • Who conducted — actually carried out — the research (e.g. a reputable research company)?
  • What precise population were respondents drawn from, how were they recruited, and screened in or out? What were the counts and percentage participation (approached/participated)?
  • What were the dates of the fieldwork?
  • What procedures were used to establish and maintain the authenticity of who was sampled (e.g. if an online poll, could people from anywhere technically participate in this Victorian poll)?
  • How was the questionnaire administered (e.g. paper self-complete, online, CATI)?
  • What was the script of stimuli administered to respondents? In other words, what prompts were given and what questions were asked: exact order and wording?
  • What results were obtained for each question (i.e. full rather than selective crosstabs)?
     

Until Mr Russell publishes in full how his ‘poll’ was conducted, the only honourable course of action for him to pursue is to withdraw the claimed results.

Until then, we can only see them as untrustworthy and a bit of a joke.

 

Rhetorical tactic — “Not” quoting yourself

This rhetorical tactic is also used by Mr Russell’s fellow Catholic, Prof. Margaret Somerville. For example, in her 2015 book Bird on an Ethics Wire, in relation to the supposed (but fanciful) fear of being euthanized in the Netherlands if adequate pain management is accepted, Somerville says in Chapter 4:

It has been alleged that Dutch physicians have interpreted patients’ consent to pain management as consent to euthanasia.38

If you’re like most people, you’d assume, given the effort of a citation (38), that an independent source had made the statement based on some evidence. Indeed, if you look at reference 38 you’ll see that the author is Lauren Vogel, and the source article is in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. All sounds like solid, legit stuff, doesn’t it?

However, Ms Vogel is a journalist, not a Dutch medic or a researcher, and what she reports in relation to Somerville’s claim is merely a quote of what someone said. And who is that someone? Why, it’s Margaret Somerville — what a coincidence!

Somerville could have just said “I’ve argued this before…”, but instead gives a seemingly robust reference to a source that has the appearance of independence and scholarship. Yet obviously she knows that the source is merely herself saying so.

Let’s be clear: something is not true just because someone alleges it. Even if they allege it twice or more. And happen cite themselves via someone else in the process.


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The Parliament of Victoria, Australia

The Ministerial Advisory Panel on voluntary assisted dying today handed down its final report to the Government.

The Panel was comprised of seven subject experts, with Professor Brian Owler as Chair and Professor Margaret O'Connor as Deputy Chair.

It consulted extensively across Victoria, taking hundreds of submissions and appearances from relevant stakeholders, and reviewing legislation from other jurisdictions in which one form or other of assisted dying is permitted.

Today, it formally handed its report, comprising over 250 pages, to the Government.

The Panel has developed what is arguably the world's most detailed and carefully laid out principles to inform legislation, and are a credit to its efforts and professionalism.

Key aspects of the recommendations for voluntary assisted dying are:

  • The person must be 18 years or over; and
  • Be ordinarily resident in Victoria and an Australian citizen or permanent resident; and
  • Have decision-making capacity in relation to voluntary assisted dying; and
  • Be diagnosed with an incurable disease, illness or medical condition that:
    • is advanced, progressive and will cause death; and
    • is expected to cause death within 12 months; and
    • is causing suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner the person deems tolerable; and
  • Doctors and other healthcare workers are not permitted to raise assisted dying — only to respond to formal patient requests.
  • The person must make three formal requests, the second of which must be written and witnessed by two independent people.
  • The person must make the request themselves. Nobody else is authorised to make the request, and the request cannot be made via an advance care directive.
  • Ordinarily, the minimum timeframe between first request and opportunity to take the medication is ten days.
  • The person must maintain decisional capacity at all three requests.
  • Two doctors must reach independent assessments that the person qualifies.
  • Only doctors who have completed specialist training for voluntary assisted dying may participate.
  • Any healthcare worker may decline to participate for any reason, without penalty.
  • A prescription dispensed for the purpose of voluntary assisted dying must be kept in a locked box and any unused portion returned to the pharmacy after death.
  • The person must self-administer the medication; except if the person is unable to, a doctor may administer. An independent witness is required if the doctor administers.
  • Establishment of an authority to receive assisted dying reports, to assess reports, and to refer unacceptable cases to disciplinary or prosecutorial authorities.
  • For Parliament to review summary reports; twice in the first two years and annually thereafter; a formal review at five years.
     

In total, the recommendations include no fewer than 68 safeguards, designed to strike, uniquely for Victoria, an appropriate balance between access to the law, and protection of dying persons.

The Government will respond to the Final Report shortly, and it is anticipated that legislation will be introduced into the Victorian Parliament in August or early September.

A full copy of the Final Report can be obtained here.

-----

Safeguards proposed for Victoria's voluntary assisted dying framework

Access

  1. Voluntary
  2. Limited to 18 years and over
  3. Residency requirement [Victorian resident and Australian citizen or permanent resident]
  4. Limited to those with decision-making capacity
  5. Must be diagnosed with condition that meets restrictive set of criteria [advanced, progressive and will cause death]
  6. End of life is clearly defined [death expected within weeks or months, not more than 12 months]
  7. End of life condition combined with requirement for suffering
  8. All of the eligibility criteria must be met
  9. Mental illness alone does not satisfy the eligibility criteria
  10. Disability alone does not satisfy the eligibility criteria

Request

  1. Must be initiated by the person themselves
  2. No substitute decision makers allowed
  3. Cannot be included as part of an advance directive
  4. Health practitioner prohibited from raising voluntary assisted dying
  5. Person must make three separate requests
  6. Must have written request [witnessed in the presence of a medical practitioner]
  7. Two independent witnesses to request [exclusions for family members, beneficiaries, paid providers]
  8. Specified time must elapse between requests [first and third requests must be at least 10 days apart with exception when death imminent]
  9. Additional time required to elapse between steps of completing process [second assessment and third request must be at least one day apart
  10. Must use independent accredited interpreter [if an interpreter is required]
  11. No obligation to proceed, may withdraw at any time

Assessment

  1. Eligibility and voluntariness assessed by medical practitioners
  2. Must be two separate and independent assessments by medical practitioners
  3. Assessing medical practitioners must have high level of training/experience
  4. Assessing medical practitioners must have undertaken prescribed training [to identify capacity and abuse issues]
  5. Requirement to properly inform person of diagnosis, prognosis and treatment options, palliative care, etc, [by both assessing medical practitioners]
  6. Referral for further independent assessment if there is doubt about decision-making capacity
  7. Coordinating medical practitioner must confirm in writing that they are satisfied that all of the requirements have been met

Medication management

  1. Person required to appoint contact person who will return medication if unused
  2. Medical practitioner must obtain a permit to prescribe the medication to the person
  3. Medication must be labelled for use, safe handling, storage and disposal
  4. Pharmacist also required to inform the person about administration and obligations
  5. Medication must be stored in a locked box

Administration

  1. Medication must be self-administered [except in exceptional circumstances]
  2. If physical incapacity, medical practitioner may administer
  3. Additional certification required if administered by medical practitioner
  4. Witness present if medical practitioner administers

Practitioner protections

  1. Health practitioner may conscientiously object to participating
  2. Explicit protection for health practitioners who are present at time of person self-administering
  3. Explicit protection for health practitioners acting in good faith without negligence within the legislation
  4. Mandatory notification by any health practitioner if another health practitioner acting outside legislation
  5. Voluntary notification by a member of the public of a health practitioner acting outside legislation

Mandatory reporting

  1. Reporting forms set out in legislation
  2. Reporting mandated at a range of points and from a range of participants to support accuracy
  3. First assessment reported [to Board]
  4. Second assessment reported [to Board]
  5. Final certification for authorisation reported [to Board, incorporates written declaration and contact person nomination]
  6. Additional form reported [to Board] if medication administered by medical practitioner
  7. Prescription authorisation reported by DHHS [to Board]
  8. Dispensing of medication reported [to Board]
  9. Return of unused medication to pharmacist reported [to Board]
  10. Death notification data reported [to BDM and collected by Board]

Offences

  1. New offence to induce a person, through dishonesty or undue influence, to request voluntary assisted dying
  2. New offence to induce a person, through dishonesty or undue influence, to self-administer the lethal dose of medication
  3. New offence to falsify records related to voluntary assisted dying
  4. New offence of failing to report on voluntary assisted dying
  5. Existing criminal offences for the crimes of murder and aiding and abetting suicide continue to apply to those who act outside the legislation

Oversight

  1. Guiding principles included in legislation
  2. Board is an independent statutory body
  3. Board functions described in legislation
  4. Board reviews compliance
  5. Board reviews all cases of [and each attempt to access] voluntary assisted dying
  6. Board has referral powers for breaches
  7. Board also has quality assurance and improvement functions
  8. Board has expanded multidisciplinary membership
  9. Board reports to publicly [to Parliament every six months for first two years, thereafter annually
  10. Five year review of the legislation
  11. Guidelines to be developed for supporting implementation

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The Age reports a 'gloves off' campaign of misinformation

Both the Herald Sun and The Age reported last week that religious anti-assisted dying crusaders are running a 'gloves off' campaign in Victoria.

Religious forces are gathering once again to attempt to thwart the views of the great majority of Victorians in favour of assisted dying law reform.

Matt Johnston in the Herald Sun quoted Paul Russell, a long-term figure in Catholic circles, and Greek Orthodox Bishop Ezekiel, in statements against assisted dying.

Farrah Thomazin in The Age quoted religious stalwarts Margaret Tighe of Right To Life, and the Australian Christian Lobby, in further statements against assisted dying.

The crux of the story is that 'pollsters' claim to have run a survey in Victoria. They refuse to be identified. They refuse to publish their methodology. And they refuse to publish all their results. Enough said.

They cherry-pick an item from their supposed poll to claim that 33% of Victorians who oppose assisted dying will change their vote against a supporting politician at the next election. They neglect to mention that only a tiny minority of Victorians actually oppose assisted dying. Their analysis is astonishingly superficial, even assuming they ran a proper, robust poll and didn't manufacture the numbers themselves.

They then use this tidbit of 'data' to put the fear of electoral defeat into politicians who will soon to face an assisted dying Bill in the Victorian Parliament.

What rubbish. Assisted dying (AD) opponents seem to be utterly shameless in misrepresenting and distorting cherry-picked data to push their religious agenda — which they pretend isn't religious.

The real situation in respect of AD is the exact opposite of their claims as I show in a proper, robust analysis of legitimate data, demonstrating that:

  • A massive 78.9% of Victorians support AD, with only a tiny 8.1% opposed. Strong supporters outnumber strong opponents by more than ten to one.
  • Significantly more supporters of AD believe that law reform is personally important, than opponents believe the status quo (no law) is personally important.
  • At a general election, far more Victorian voters will punish Members who oppose the AD Bill than will punish Members who support it (3.5 to 1 overall, 2.4 to 1 for the Liberal/National Coalition and 6.6 to 1 for Labor).
  • The co-sponsors of Victoria’s 2008 AD Bill were returned with greatly increased majorities (including relative to their party’s overall performance) despite campaigns against them by anti-AD crusaders.

 

You can read the full analysis here.

So that Victorian politicians are not misled, I have forwarded my report to the Victorian Government's Cabinet and other selected members of Parliament.

The only way in which this campaign could be called 'gloves-off' is that opponents, lurking around with their shadowy misinformation, don't want to get bullshit on their mittens. Hands seem to be much easier to wash. And hide.


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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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St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Donaldytong

Against current moves to legalise assisted dying, Australian Catholic Father John George invokes Nazi Germany, resorts to ad hominem attacks to dismiss those who disagree with him, and demands that the Pope’s edicts are binding on everyone regardless of their own faith or world view.

On 24th September 2016, Journalists Greg Brown and Rick Morton published an article in The Australian, Victorian coroner credited with turning tide on euthanasia, summarising recent Australian moves to legalise assisted dying choice.

Catholic Father John George commented on the article online, quoting four sections of the Catholic Church’s catechism that prohibit assisted dying (sections 2276–9).

Pushback

Other readers of The Australian remarked that they respected his view for himself but they had no interest in the Pope’s views given the readers were not Catholic. In fact, repeated polls in Australia have shown that even the great majority of Catholics (three out of four) do not agree with the Vatican on the matter of assisted dying, a matter which Fr George dismisses merely as ‘fickle votes and polls.’

I would remind Fr George that these are not fickle: Australian public opinion in favour of assisted dying choice has been consistently in the majority for now more than four decades.

Fr George further quoted Catholic sources, for example the LJ Goody Bioethics Centre in Perth, Australia, which he failed to mention is, literally, an agency of the Catholic Archdiocese of Perth. He also selectively quoted Palliative Care Australia, failing to mention that they have acknowledged that not all pain and suffering can be eliminated at the end of life, even with the best palliative care.

Ad hominem attack

In response to a rising tide of objections to his musings, including from Mr Ian Wood, a fellow Christian and co-founder of Christians for Voluntary Euthanasia Choice, Fr George resorted to the ad hominem attack: to attack the person (or persons) rather than the arguments. He said:

“The pro euthanasia claque here make professional Nazi propaganda expert Goebbels look like a 5th rate amateur.” — Father John George.

For anyone in the dark, a claque is a group of sycophants hired to applaud a performer or public speaker. How rude. Fr George seems to have neglected to reflect that it is he who is hired to promote the performance of the Vatican. I applaud his right to do so, and I do not compare him to a treacherous propagandist in a murderous wartime regime in order to dismiss his arguments: I address the arguments themselves.

Nazi Germany

Fr George makes repeated mentions of Nazi Germany as a core reason to deny assisted dying choice.

In contrast, several years ago I was chatting at a conference with the pleasant and engaging Peter McArdle, then Research Director of the Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference. He volunteered that he very much disliked the “Nazi Germany” argument so often used in religious circles, and wished it would stop because in so doing it meant they’d already lost the debate.

I agree. It’s a lazy and indefensible argument: that rational people in a functioning democracy must be denied choice for themselves on the basis of what some murderous regime did against others at the point of a gun.

Indeed, to rely on such a standard would be to equally argue against the right to religious practice, because the Catholic Church, through its inquisition practices (medieval C12th, papal C13th, Spanish C15th, Roman and Portuguese C16th) relied on torture and resulted in confiscation of property and at least tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of executions for witchcraft and heresy.

Ultimate hubris

But the real crux is that Fr George then unequivocally demands that:

“Principles elaborated by the pope are universally applicable.” — Father John George.

This ultimate hubris reveals a profound lack of self-reflection, both personally and organisationally. Even entertaining for a moment the premise that one individual (or even organisation) can tell everyone on the planet how they must live their lives, how would we choose that person or organisation? Why is it less valid for the head of any other branch of Christianity, of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism (or any other religion) or an agnostic (which I am) or an atheist, to set such rules for everyone, overriding other deeply-held beliefs and values?

A keener example of ‘blinded by faith’ would be hard to find.

Conclusion

I argue that Fr John George displays some of the gravest hubris of some members of the Catholic church. I respect and applaud his world views for himself and those who wish to subscribe. But using canonincal arguments (that is, religious arguments demanded as universally true by virtue of the supposed authority that dispensed them) is probably a major contributor to the current flight of people away from organised religion.

More happily, such an attitude is also contributing to accelerating the legalisation of assisted dying choice because folks can see these arguments for what they are. For that I doff my hat to Fr George.


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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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Mrs Inga Peulich of the Victorian Parliament.

Mrs Inga Peulich is MLC for the Victorian state region of South-Eastern Metropolitan and is Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs and for Scrutiny of Government. She is a member of the Parliament's Legal and Social Issues Committee, which recently recommended assisted dying law reform.

She has previously made clear her personal opposition toward assisted dying law reform. It's no surprise then that she wrote a minority report against her own Committee's final recommendations. What is surprising is the incoherence of her report.

They're biased but I'm not

Mrs Peulich rails against the inquiry being held in the first place, saying that she outright opposed the call. It's curious then that she remained on the Committee once the inquiry was mandated by the Legislative Council.

Even more telling is that Mrs Peulich accuses her fellow Parliamentary Committee members of unmitigated bias—that they simply reached a foregone conclusion. Not only does such hubris demonstrate a breathtaking disregard for the dedication and professionalism of her fellow Parliamentarians, it reveals a comprehensive failure of self-reflection: that other members are biased for the possibility of a supportive stance, but she is not for her preset and entrenched opposition.

The criticism is all the more galling for the fact that Mrs Peulich missed a number of meetings to hear from expert witnesses. Other members were informed and their position changed or at least nuanced by the evidence and advice.

The ramble

Mrs Peulich's minority report then launches into a ramble of conjecture, raising many of the tired old discredited arguments against assisted dying without reference to a single cited fact; incoherently even making points that the Committees' final report (hundreds of pages, fully cited) can't support...and ones that I specifically, comprehensively and evidentially refuted in my submission to and expert witness appearance before the Committee.

At least one appropriate omission

I can say that in response to a question Mrs Peulich asked me about non-voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands, in what she might have anticipated as a 'gotcha' moment, I used empirical scientific evidence to blast the premise of her question—that legalisation of voluntary euthanasia has increased the rate of Dutch non-voluntary euthanasia—out of the water. The rate has dropped dramatically, not increased. At least she didn't raise that hoary old Dutch chestnut directly in her report.

Selective perfectionism

It would be tedious to address every item of unsupported conjecture and misinformation in Mrs Peulich's report. However, one other claim is worthy of discussion. It's an argument she's made before. She says this in regard to assisted dying law reform:

"...people will die as a result of accident, error or misdiagnosis. Any accidental loss of life – even the loss of one life, means such a regime cannot be justified."

Putting aside for the moment the premise of the statement, Mrs Peulich's selectivity is remarkable.

Published scientific research shows that of hospital admissions (Australia), around 0.4% result in death as a consequence of preventable medical error.1 The study was published some twenty years ago, so let's assume that the error rate has dropped—by virtue of greatly improved record keeping, communication, transparency, procedures and technology since then—by a factor of ten: that is, a preventable medical error death rate of 0.04%.

That still means that at least dozens of Victorians die each year as a result of preventable medical error.

If Mrs Peulich argues that no system can be justified if it results in the erroneous loss of a single life, then she must equally argue for the closure and prohibition of the entire Victorian hospital system. Or admit that she's irrationally biased against the option of assisted dying.

Missing critical Oregon 'information'

Yet the most telling thing is what is missing from Mrs Peulich's minority report.

On April 8th 2010, as keynote speaker and in her capacity as member of the Victorian Parliament, at Australian Catholic University's Interfaith Symposium on Death and Dying, she made this unequivocal statement:

"The Oregon experience, which legislated the taking of medication to bring about euthanasia indicates unfortunately that it does occur, that older patients who are tapping into more expensive care are encouraged often to bring about their own earlier demise."

Such a situation would be a very, very serious matter indeed.

But did Mrs Peulich furnish any evidence to support her allegation? No, none whatsoever.

If she believes this matter to be true, and it would be of critical importance to the inquiry to which she was directly a party and would strongly support her case against reform, why does it not appear in her minority report?

Mrs Peulich, put up or apologise

The claim is bunkum. Having extensively studied dozens of reports about and scientific studies into practices in Oregon and personally interviewed key Oregonian stakeholders (for, against and neutral), I have found not a shred of evidence that supports Mrs Peulich's categorical assertion.

I expressly challenge Mrs Peulich to furnish the necessary, verifiable, authoritative evidence (not mere self-serving gossip and scuttlebutt), and to explain why it does not appear as evidence to her own Committee's investigation.

If she is unable to provide such evidence or satisfactorily explain its absence from her minority report, it is my view that she owes the people of Victoria an apology for the spreading of misinformation on the taxpayer's tab.

A dead bat to this challenge would only serve to highlight that her claims are rubbish and that this kind of approach deserves no place in the important public discourse about assisted dying.

 

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1. Wilson, Ross McL, Runciman, William B., Gibberd, Robert W., Harrison, Bernadette T., Newby, Liza & Hamilton, John D.. 1995. The Quality in Australian Healthcare Study. Medical Journal of Australia 163: 458-471. 

 


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St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Donaldytong

On Wednesday 19th November 2015, the Catholic Church appeared before the Victorian Parliament's Legal and Social Issues Committee. Monsignor Anthony Ireland, the Episcopal Vicar for Health, Aged and Disability Care, and Father Anthony Kerin, Episcopal Vicar for Life, Marriage and Family gave evidence about end-of-life decision making. They made a factually wrong allegation about Oregon during their testimony.

Anthony Ireland spoke first, making it clear that they were appearing before the Committee with delegated authority from the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne (Denis Hart) and with the endorsement of the Victorian Catholic Bishops. He emphasised that "the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne does not come to this Committee with fanciful or frivolous arguments."

During question time. Committee Chair Edward O'Donohue asked the Vicars if they had any evidence from lawful jurisdictions to back up their claim that legalising assisted dying would result in a significant reduction in medical research. The Vicars flailed about with vague hypotheticals, but no evidence.

Committee Deputy Chair Nina Springle remarked that some of their testimony was inconsistent with direct evidence from lawful jurisdictions and invited them to reflect on the contradictions. To this, Anthony Kerin stated:

"We know, for example, since Oregon legislated, that the standard suicide rate has increased remarkably and alarmingly. It's not yet the largest rate in the US, but it's getting there, when Oregon had a very, very low suicide rate prior to that."

Let's not mince words: the allegation is comprehensively false. In fact it's three false statements all wrapped up into one.

The USA government's CDC mortaility database provides solid empirical data. Here's Oregon's longitudinal suicide rate statistics, including sixteen years before its Death With Dignity Act (DWDA), and sixteen years after.

Oregon suicide rate

Here are the pertinent facts about Oregon's general suicide rate:

  1. The average for the 16 years after the DWDA is lower than, but not statistically different from, the 16 years prior to the Act.
  2. There was a massive drop in the suicide rate two years after the DWDA came into effect, and the rate has risen only from there.
  3. The rise from 2000 onwards is repeated in the majority of USA states and in the national average. The trend increase in Oregon is not statistically different from the national trend increase.

 
By way of comparison, here's Vermont's suicide rate for the same period.

vermontsuiciderate.jpg

Now, Vermont didn't have an assisted dying law until 2013, and no assisted deaths occurred under the law in that year, so the suicide rate cannot have been affected by an assisted dying law. Yet the picture is similar to Oregon's.

Here's the USA national suicide rate for the same period, with the unemployment rate added.

USA suicide and unemployment rates

There are numerous and complex reasons for suicide and for changes in the rate, but a key one in this USA case is unemployment, which after falling in the 1990s rose abruptly from 2000 onwards.

Has Oregon's suicide rate been worsening relative to other USA states, though? The state annual suicide rankings are informative.

Oregon suicide ranking among all USA states (number 1 is worst)

Prior to the DWDA, the trend in Oregon's suicide ranking among all USA states was deteriorating (where ranking number one is the highest suicide rate). Since the Act came into effect, the trend is improving. The difference in trends is statistically significant. In the sixteen years since the Act came into effect, Oregon has appeared in the "top ten" six times, compared with twelve times in the 16 years prior to the Act.

So, let's examine the three elements of the Catholic Church's statement:

1. "Since Oregon legislated, the standard suicide rate has increased remarkably and alarmingly"

This statement is false by omission. It is critically relevant to mention that Oregon's suicide rate dropped massively two years after the DWDA came into effect. Only after 2000 did it begin to rise—like most states and nationally—and in response to a rising unemployment rate.

2. "Oregon had a very, very low suicide rate prior to that [the DWDA]"

This statement is completely false. Oregon's mean rate suicide for 16 years after the act is not significantly different from the mean for 16 years prior to the Act. Indeed, government data back to 1968 shows Oregon's general suicide rate has always been high and never "low", let alone "very, very low".

3. It's not yet the largest rate in the US, but it's getting there"

This statement is completely false. Oregon's suicide ranking amongst USA states was worsening prior to the DWDA, but has been improving since.

It's very disappointing indeed that the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne would offer such profoundly false testimony to a legislative committee making inquiries on behalf of the people of Victoria. The offense is all the more grevious because of the unequivocal manner in which the statement was made, and that the witnesses specifically stated they did not bring any fanciful or frivolous arguments to the Committee.

It's time to comprehensively stamp out false information about assisted dying, no matter how fervently it might be believed by its proponents. Watch this space: there's plenty more to come!


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