Fiction

A thing that is untrue, or invented or feigned by imaginatoin with no sound or verifiable evidence.

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Margaret Somerville's latest and repeated misinformation deserves censure.

If there’s one thing you have to admire about Margo Somerville, Catholic Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia, it’s her persistence in the face of being called out for misrepresenting facts about assisted dying. She’s at it again.

Today in the Sydney Morning Herald, Somerville was quoted spruiking her credentials via a recent publication in the peer-reviewed Journal of Palliative Care.1 Since I study the professional literature, I’m aware of said article, which was published several weeks ago. It's a shocker.

The authority bias

Somerville shows herself to again to not care much for the full facts. She seems more comfortable with calling on the ‘authority bias’: advancing her credentials as a “Professor of Bioethics” along with nine “international counterparts” in the authorship of said paper.

I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow analysis of how the JPC article skilfully employs reassuringly professional tones to stake a wholly one-sided and shockingly ill-informed stance against assisted dying law reform.

A very telling example of misinformation

Let’s look at just one very telling example: the statistics that the authors quote about non-voluntary euthanasia (NVE) rates in Belgium and the Netherlands. NVE is a doctor’s act of hastening a patient’s death without a current request from the patient. The authors say that:

“Administration of lethal drugs without patient request occurred in 1.7% of all deaths in the Flanders region of Belgium alone and 0.2% of all deaths in the Netherlands.”

Are these figures correct? Yes indeed they are... as at the date of the cited sources. However, they are just cherry-picked tidbits from a larger and very different smorgasboard of evidence.

A throbbing great falsehood with warts

Do the figures mean what the authors say they mean? In no uncertain terms, absolutely and incontrovertibly not.

The authors don’t just coyly suggest, imply or impute that those NVE rates are caused by the legalisation of assisted dying, they directly claim it. Right in front the statistics, they state categorically that:

“Allowing voluntary euthanasia has led to non-voluntary euthanasia.”

Let’s put this the politest way we can: that’s a throbbing great falsehood with warts on it. The authors would have known this if they’d paid attention to published research facts beyond their own opinions.

Comprehensively ignoring peer-reviewed facts

Had the paper’s authors (and the supposed peer reviewers) actually known much about the subject matter, they wouldn’t have referred to those figures, because they’re massively unhelpful to the case the authors attempt to prosecute. Here are three central published facts about the case:

Fact 1: Before the Netherlands’ euthanasia Act came into effect, the NVE rate was 0.7%. Then in the next research round with the Act in place it had dropped to 0.5%, and the round after that, to 0.2%. The last is the figure the authors quote as evidence that “VE leads to NVE”, despite the fact that the rate had massively dropped, not risen.

Fact 2: Before Belgium’s euthanasia Act came into effect, the NVE rate was 3.2% [typo 3.5% corrected]. Then in the next research round with the Act in place it had dropped to 1.7%, the figure the authors quote. Again, the rate had massively dropped, not risen.

Fact 3: The rate of NVE in the United Kingdom was researched around the same time as the later Dutch figures, and found to be 0.3%.2 The UK has never had an assisted dying law, so the 0.3% NVE rate, which is higher than the Dutch 0.2% rate the authors quote, can't have been caused by one.

So, these three key published facts — known to most of us with an interest in lawful assisted dying — squarely contradict the authors' VE-causing-NVE claim. It's at the very least astonishing and inexcusable that all the numerous authors and peer reviewers of this “scholarly” article either didn’t know, or “overlooked”, them.

Indeed, despite holding one of the world’s largest scholarly libraries on published assisted dying research, I know of no study that establishes a VE-to-NVE link. All the evidence is contrary.

Not the first time

We could perhaps be a little forgiving if the authors just got a statistic wrong. After all, we're all human. But there are ten authors, plus peer reviewers. And there’s the egregious offence the authors committed in making an unequivocal but false claim about the data. Did none of them know what they were talking about or bother to check?

In this case I’m wholly unforgiving. That's because I’ve called Somerville out multiple times before for misrepresenting data, including for misrepresenting Belgian and Dutch NVE data precisely as she does again in this JPC article. We’ve even publicly exchanged words about it via the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal. It’s not like she simply didn’t know.

I’ve also called Somerville out for wrongly claiming that Dutch Minister of Health Dr Els Borst regretted the euthanasia law; and wrongly claiming the Dutch elderly go to German hospitals and nursing homes for healthcare for fear of being euthanased in the Netherlands, including that NVE actually does occur in German nursing homes, despite, as Somerville notes, “their strict prohibition on euthanasia”.

This rubbish deserves censure and ridicule

While I argue strongly that different views about assisted dying law reform are welcome in a robust democracy, repeatedly spreading such egregious misinformation about assisted dying is an embarrassment to and unworthy of scholarly attribution to professorship. Such rubbish deserves to be rejected, censured and ridiculed.

 

References

  1. Sprung, CL, Somerville, MA, Radbruch, L, Collet, NS, Duttge, G, Piva, JP, Antonelli, M, Sulmasy, DP, Lemmens, W & Ely, EW 2018, 'Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia: Emerging issues from a global perspective', Journal of Palliative Care.
  2. Seale, C 2009, 'End-of-life decisions in the UK involving medical practitioners', Palliat Med, 23(3), pp. 198-204.

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Plenty of misinformation will be advanced to oppose Senator David Leyonhjelm's Restoring Territory Rights Bill.

In 1996 the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act (ROTI) came into effect. Just four people had used the Act when seven months later an Act of the Federal Parliament extinguished the NT law, by cancelling the Territories’ authority to enact it.

This week, the Senate [federal parliament] debates the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill, sponsored by libertarian Senator David Leyonhjelm. If the Bill passes both houses, the Territories will again have the authority to legislate the matter of assisted dying.

Opponents of lawful assisted dying have been sharpening their knives to ensure that Senator Leyonhjelm’s Bill fails and that Territorians remain second-class citizens. In this post I expose one of the desperate and disgraceful pieces of misinformation opponents use to try and curry fear about law reform.

Opponent signals

There are signals from many quarters that assisted dying opponents are dragging out the tired old argument that indigenous Australians are too fearful of assisted dying to allow reinstatement of the Territories’ legislative authority.

The signals are clear, though so far mostly behind the scenes. Nevertheless, they predict a full onslaught of invalid “fear” claims in the parliamentary debate this week.

Populist beginning of the misinformation

Since the NT ROTI Act there have been ongoing claims that indigenous (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Australians are wholly and deeply fearful of assisted dying law. A chief flag-waver of this proposition is Jesuit Priest Father Frank Brennan. He’s not only argued this line repeatedly in public, but promoted it to at least one parliamentary inquiry.

Fr Brennan likes to frame this argument to suggest that it’s uniquely substantive and persuasive, while other highly relevant information is merely “suggestion”.

“There was a suggestion these fears were whipped up by the churches and other conservative groups.” — Fr Brank Brennan

The “indigenous fears” opinion has been widely disseminated by other Catholics, including now-disgraced Fr John Fleming in a paper on behalf of the Catholic Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, and by Mr Paul Russell, Director of “HOPE”, a ginger group established by the Catholic Australian Family Association.

Classic cherry-picking

I’ve called out Mr Russell and others before for cherry-picking information to suit their arguments. And here we are again. In this blog, Mr Russell correctly reports that indigenous NT parliamentarian Mr Wes Lanhupuy voted in favour of the ROTI Act, but dismisses his vote as the result of “pressure”.

What Mr Russell disgracefully omits from his plug is that Mr Lanhupuy was directly involved in the consultation of indigenous communities, and said this in his parliamentary speech:

“The church has been a major voice. … I heard in the community that some of the churches were telling people that they should not support the bill basically because of their religious beliefs. No information whatsoever was given as a reason for that. No information was given whereby people could determine their own beliefs. That was disappointing.” — NT indigenous parliamentarian Mr Wes Lanhupuy (Hansard)

Disgraceful religious prejudice

But there’s more. At the time the federal parliament was debating its Bill to overturn the ROTI Act in 1997, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee conducted a formal investigation and published a Senate report, Consideration of legislation referred to the Committee: Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996. Its 204 pages make interesting reading.

For example, Mr Creed Lovegrove, a former senior Northern Territory public servant leading the Native Affairs Office, reported to the Senate Committee:

“I express my concern, not at the right of certain ideologists to have their say, but at the misrepresentations some were making to people over whom they have an emotional hold. Where this group happens to be Aboriginal, I believe some of the frightening lies they were told about the subject were a psychological and emotional exploitation of them, as blatant as any that has ever occurred in the Territory.” — p 44

…and reported to him by a group of senior and influential Aboriginals:

“They reckon the government is going to round up all the real sick people and those with V.D. and things like that and finish them off.” — p 45

…and on page 44 of the report, the Northern Territory government noted that at least one Aboriginal community wanted to hear the full story about euthanasia, not just the Church story.

Fake news — avoiding healthcare

There were also widespread claims that indigenous Northern Territorians were avoiding presenting to medical centres for healthcare for fear of being euthanased. However, the Senate report noted (p 52) that the claim was controversial, and that the Northern Territory government had provided statistics to show no significant decrease in presentations for treatment.

In a classic opponent manoeuvre when the data yet again didn’t fit the story, it was then claimed (p 52) that future data could show a decrease in presentations.

Morally bankrupt argument

But that’s a morally bankrupt argument. You don’t deny Jack the right to drive a car because Jill has an ill-informed phobia that Jack’s right is likely to contribute to her own death. Rather, the ethical approach is to provide Jack with his right and to provide Jill with education.

And that’s precisely what the NT government did. In today’s money, it stumped up $500k for education programs, and those programs were beginning to take effect. In testimony to the Committee, Reverend Dr Djiniyini Gondarra (opposed to the legislation) conceded that the education efforts had been somewhat effective in overcoming fears about the ROTI Act (p 52).

Ironic reverse discrimination

Perhaps one of the most ironic aspects of church-led fear of the ROTI Act was the Act’s “reverse discrimination” itself. The Act required, if the doctor and patient did not share the same first language, that a qualified and authorised translator be engaged before the patient might qualify for an assisted death.

Given the rarity of qualified and authorised translators, especially in remote communities, indigenous Northern Territorians would have had significantly less access to use the law than their white, city-based fellow citizens.

Putting it into perspective

Setting aside the dreadfully misinformed fear of assisted dying law and its stoking by churches, the question arises as to the prevalence of indigenous residents in the Territories: both Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory. I’ve retrieved Australian Bureau of Statistics data from the 2016 census to answer that question (Figure 1).

 

indigenousterritorians.gifFigure 1: Australian Territory indigenous populations
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016 census

Indigenous peoples represent a quarter of the population in the NT (25.5%), and a tiny minority (1.6%) in the ACT. Across the two Territories, that’s 10.3% of the population. Even if all the indigenous citizens opposed assisted dying law reform (which is clearly not the case), their impact on overall attitude would be minor.

By way of comparison, most national polls find around 12% of Australians opposed to assisted dying law reform. And, as I’ve factually demonstrated, almost all of that is faith-based. Such ‘fears’ are not a valid reason to prohibit others from pursuing a choice they deeply feel is moral and justified.

Playing the race card

Indeed, if opponents were intent on justifying the denial of a parliament to legislate for assisted dying on the basis of supposed indigenous attitude — playing the race card — then they must also by corollary campaign for the denial of State parliaments to legislate. That's because there are nearly four times as many indigenous Australians in NSW (216,170) and three times as many in Queensland (186,483) as there are in the Northern Territory (58,246) [2016 census data].

To argue one and not the other is to flip-flop.

Contact your Senators now

Church-whipped fear about assisted dying law amongst indigenous Australians is appalling and to be condemned, as is spreading false claims about a supposed reduction in presentations for medical care.

Senators will be inundated with false claims as they contemplate the Leyonhjelm Bill — including that indigenous Territorians are terrified of assisted dying law. (Lyeonhjelm’s Bill doesn’t legalise assisted dying: it only restores Territory parliament rights to consider the reform.)

It’s critical that Senators also hear from supporters of Territory rights — that Territorians not be treated as second-class citizens compared to State-based citizens.

To that end YOU can do something right now! Use the Go Gentle Australia submission page to send a message of support to your State or Territory Senators now. Go Gentle make it so easy, by showing you who your Senators are by merely entering your address.

Don’t delay! Here’s the link again.

 

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Disclaimer: I do not claim, suggest, imply or impute that any individuals named in this article were personally or individually responsible for, or were involved in, any misinformation being provided to indigenous Australians about assisted dying law.


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The deeply-flawed Jones & Paton, and Kheriaty articles purporting to show suicide contagion.

In the ongoing political campaign against assisted dying law reform, opponents have spread one piece of egregious misinformation after another. One of the most common is supposed “suicide contagion” from assisted dying laws to general suicide, a theory popularised by Catholic Prof. Margaret Somerville. Despite the nonsense of her claim being comprehensively exposed, she still believes that her opinion “will prove to be correct.” Two journal papers published in 2015 purported to, but didn't, establish suicide contagion in Oregon and Washington states.

Note: the report is now published here.

Assisted dying law reform opponents are still relying on a 2015 paper by Catholics David Jones and David Paton, bolstered by a glowing editorial of it written by Catholic psychiatrist Aaron Kheriaty, published in the Southern Medical Journal, as continued ‘proof’ of suicide contagion theory, at least in respect of USA states Oregon and Washington (since data from other lawful jurisdictions contradicts the theory).

Jones & Paton’s article reported the use of econometric modelling to test for ‘suicide contagion’ from Oregon and Washington’s Death With Dignity Act (DWDA) laws. But, in an exposé to be published this week, no fewer than ten ‘deadly sins’ of the study are peeled back to reveal the rot within.

The very deep flaws and biases of the original articles include:

  • Cherry-picking information from cited sources to argue their case, while omitting information from the same sources that contradicted their case;
  • Including test and control subjects whose consequence was likely to maximise the likelihood of finding a positive association;
  • Demonstrating a poor understanding of suicide and its risk and protective factors and failing to control for most confounding effects in their econometric model ‘pudding’;
  • Overegging the “causative suicide contagion” interpretation when no correlation between assisted dying and general suicide rates was found; and
  • Failing to use direct, robust and readily-available evidence that showed their study couldn’t possibly have hoped to return scientifically valid “contagion” proof.

 
The USA’s National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), of which Oregon is a founding member, shows that even if “assisted dying suicide contagion theory” were true, fewer than 2 of 855 Oregon “total suicides” in 2014 could have been attributed to “contagion” from DWDAs.

Further, both Oregon and Washington state rankings for suicide rates have improved, not deteriorated, since their DWDAs came into effect, while the suicide ranking for a relevant control state — Oklahoma — has deteriorated substantially over the same time.

Ultimately, through numerous and deep methodological flaws, the Jones, Paton and Kheriaty articles reveal a bias to promote “assisted dying suicide contagion theory” while ignoring the robust evidence from multiple lawful jurisdictions, including in their own ‘study,’ that contradict it.

The exposé, titled “The ten deadly sins of Jones, Paton and Kheriaty on ‘suicide contagion’,” will be published by DyingForChoice.com later in the week.

Note: the report is now published here.


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The Age reports on the three AMA dcotors' appearance at Spring Street

As reported in The Age, on Tuesday this week three AMA doctors fronted the Victorian Parliament to spread the word about their perceived horrors of an assisted dying law. Their arguments don’t hold water and politicians should see them for what they are: utter nonsense.

Doctors Stephen Parnis, Mukesh Haikerwal and Mark Yates say they will continue to lobby politicians.

With what?

Here is the ‘substance’ of their arguments — a sticky blomonge of the same old confected and discredited claims.

The vulnerable will be at risk

Dr Parnis said that such a law “puts the most frail and vulnerable in our community — the dying — at profound risk,” pointing to coercion, and patients not getting the medical care they need.

As I’ve explained before, the claim is flapdoodle — circular nonsense.

It’s a circular argument (a logical fallacy) because “the vulnerable” are by definition those “at risk” and vice versa. While the circularity makes the claim about assisted dying risks seem true, it's a false imputation.

By way of comparison, we could equally say that “the vulnerable will be at risk if we wear yellow socks on Wednesdays,” so we should outlaw that as well. Or anything else of which we disapprove and make our argument seem valid by attaching it to “the vulnerable being at risk.”

Let’s not talk about it

Dr Yates argued that the Parliament should not be pursing “divisive legislation.” That’s also a false argument because it's merely an appeal to emotion: avoiding legislating anything upon which there is any disagreement and discomfort. The consequence of this argument is to not legislate at all.

Patient trust in doctors

They also argued that assisted dying legislation would “change the doctor-patient relationship” — by which they mean “damage the relationship,” or they wouldn’t have mentioned it.

Again, as I have shown before, the empirical evidence from around the world is consistent with improved, not damaged, patient trust in doctors where assisted dying is legal.

The massive AMA flip-flop

But, as I’ve also pointed out before, the real telltale of the AMA doctors’ farcical representation to the Victorian Parliament is this: while opposing assisted dying legislation because patients might be pressured, subtly or otherwise, to choose death, the AMA officially endorses the right to refuse medical treatment, which includes life-saving treatment.

The hypothetical risk of patients being encouraged to refuse life-saving medical treatment is identical in kind to that of assisted dying. Yet in Victoria, the right to refuse is protected by just three statutory safeguards, while the assisted dying legislation is founded on no fewer than 68 safeguards.

So the AMA incoherently promotes one hypothetical pressure-to-die pathway with only three protections, while cruelly opposing a parallel path with an armada of protections. Let's award 10 out of 10 for the impressive flip-flop manoeuvre.

Conclusion

The AMA doctors’ claims are without merit and advancing them does no favours to their professional credibility.


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Another Catholic 'academic' spreads more misinformation. Photo: donaldytong

It’s very disappointing that Catholic theologian Dr Joel Hodge’s recent editorial in Fairfax media about assisted dying law reform contained misinformation: the same old tired and discredited story trotted out as though it's true. Dr Hodge also repeated an old and curiously one-sided (Catholic) examination of the hypothetical slippery slope.

Unhappily, the kind of misinformation that Dr Hodge advances muddies the waters and cruelly stands in the way of legislative action, which most Australians want.

An impeccable national survey conducted by scholars at Australian National University last year found 77% of Australians in favour of assisted dying law reform. Strong support (43%) outweighed strong opposition (4%) by more than ten to one. In the two states whose Parliaments are currently considering reform, NSW and Victoria, support stands at 75% and 79% respectively.
 

Non-religious support is 91%, and it’s high amongst Catholics (74%) and Anglicans (79%) as well. Bishops are jarringly out of step with the views of their flocks. And across the political spectrum, 87% of Greens, 80% of Labor, 77% of Coalition and 69% of minor party voters also want reform.

The electorate’s desires couldn’t be clearer. But politicians — who have little time to fact-check what they’re told — are fed the kind of misinformation Dr Hodge advances.

The false 'non-voluntary euthanasia slippery slope' argument

He quotes details from a medical journal article by Dr José Pereira, a Canadian Catholic physician. Like others who cite this article, Dr Hodge fails to mention that it was thoroughly debunked in a surgical deconstruction by expert scholars. They found Pereira’s claims variously unsupported by any evidence, unsupported by the sources he cited, or false, concluding that the article was “smoke and mirrors.”

Like other Catholics, Dr Hodge relies heavily on a thoroughly debunked journal article by Catholic Canadian doctor, José Pereira.A significant source of smoke, which Dr Hodge fans from this debunked article, is the claim regarding “900 Dutch deaths hastened without explicit request”: that is, non-voluntary euthanasia or NVE. Such figures are cited as ‘proof’ of the hypothetical slippery slope from legalised voluntary euthanasia to NVE.

Other opponents of assisted dying variously put the figure at 500 or 1,000. For the sake of argument, let’s say the 900 figure is equivalent to 1,000. Both the 500 and 1,000 figures, also repeatedly promoted by Catholic ethicist Professor Margaret Somerville and others, have been true. But here’s the thing.

What they don’t mention is that the 1,000 rate is from the 1990s when Dutch assisted dying was conducted under a general regulatory framework. In 2002 the Dutch euthanasia Act came into effect. Amongst the Act's many details was the establishment of a Commission which examines every reported case of assistance.

Since then, the Dutch NVE rate has dropped to 500, and even further. It has stayed low and is now similar to the NVE rate in the United Kingdom, the world’s gold standard for palliative care, and where assisted dying remains illegal.

There was a significant drop in the NVE rate in Belgium, too, after its euthanasia Act came into effect, also in 2002.

It is absolutely unconscionable that yet another Catholic commentator has trotted out the same old lie as though it's true. Dr Hodge is an academic and it is incumbent on him to check the facts before sounding off.By cherry-picking a single figure, opponents argue the opposite of the facts, implying or even directly claiming that NVE rates are caused by or have risen as a result of legalised assisted dying. I’ve comprehensively exposed this nonsense before, yet it comes up repeatedly.

It’s similar to other lines of Catholic argument against assisted dying, like the claim that Dutch elderly supposedly travel to Germany for healthcare because they fear being euthanised by their Dutch doctors — an outrageous falsehood. There’s also the faintly desperate claim that Dr Els Borst, the architect of the Dutch euthanasia Act, later regretted her reform — a fake claim she’s firmly corrected.

Consider too a Catholic bishop’s claim, without reservation and in formal evidence before an official Parliamentary inquiry, that Oregon’s general suicide rate was very low prior to its assisted dying Act but very high afterwards — contrary to the facts. Or a report cherry-picking just half a sentence from a journal paper to claim that a significant proportion of assisted-death patients in Oregon had symptoms of depression, when the other half of the very same sentence clearly stated that none of them had.

As Professors Griffiths, Weyers and Adams wrote in 2008, “imprecision, exaggeration, suggestion and innuendo, misinterpretation and misrepresentation [and worse] took the place of careful analysis.” Sadly, the same still seems true today.

Major Catholic flip-flop on choosing death

Now let’s turn our attention to the core of Dr Hodge’s thesis. His plea for “the vulnerable” leads his argument and is heavily egged throughout the polemical pudding.

A comparison is moot: Australians have the right to refuse any unwanted medical treatment, even if it’s life-saving.

In my home state of Victoria, this right to refuse is enshrined in statute. The statute contains just three ‘safeguards’ for checking a refusal, and those only apply if the refusal is formally documented in writing but not if it’s only oral.

As I’ve explained in detail before, the consequence is that a person can refuse life-saving medical treatment with few if any checks and balances. In theory, just as Dr Hodge argues in regard to assisted dying, the person might feel pressured by greedy relatives, resource-poor doctors or others, to so refuse.

In this case, where is the Catholic call for protections? Where is the moral outrage on behalf of ‘vulnerable patients’? There is none. In fact, the Catholic Church’s call is quite the opposite. In a directive to all Catholic healthcare institutions in the USA, the Conference of Catholic Bishops make the Church’s position abundantly clear. They direct that there is no obligation for patients to use “disproportionate means of preserving life.”

The Catholic church's rhetoric against assisted dying is a major flip-flop when compared to its cosy attitude towards refusal of life-saving medical treatment: both might result in hypothetical pressure to choose death, yet only assisted dying has adequate safeguards.They define disproportionate means as “…those that in the patient’s judgement do not offer a reasonable hope of benefit or entail an excessive burden, or impose excessive expense on the family or the community.”

So, under two identical hypothetical possibilities of inappropriate persuasion to choose death, Dr Hodge’s argument bristles against an assisted dying reform containing — as he acknowledges — no fewer than 68 safeguards, while his Church argues that patients may refuse life-saving medical treatment if the patient feels it’s “hopeless,” entails “excessive burden” or imposes “excessive expense” on others, with hardly any, or no statutory safeguards at all.

The incoherence, and repetition of misinformation, is indefensible. Civil debate on such an important matter deserves better.


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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, https://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, https://www.catholicweekly.com.au/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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Yet more research contradicts Prof. Margaret Somerville's Dutch NVE claim

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

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

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

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

She made the claim with certainty and without qualification.

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

Her claim is premised on two false beliefs, that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for Somerville’s second premise.

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


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Patricia Flowers calls Margaret Somerville's arugments 'bullshit' on national television. Photo: ABC

Last week, Mr Xavier Symons published a defence of Professor Margaret Somerville, whose arguments against assisted dying were called ‘bullshit’ by Patricia Flowers on the ABC’s Q&A program. Symons and Somerville are colleagues at the Institute for Ethics and Society at the Catholic Notre Dame University of Australia.

Mr Symons made an important point: that a law about restricted self-choice for assisted dying is in no way comparable to the Nazi Germany euthanasia (or more correctly, eugenics) programme. While Prof. Somerville agrees that such comparisons are invalid, she nevertheless often mentions Nazi Germany as a ‘question’ when debating assisted dying. That’s a bit of a fudge.

And Mr Symons, in his defence of Prof. Somerville, offers some fudges of his own. While Dr Iain Brassington has offered a cool philosophical examination of Mr Symons’ opinion piece in a Journal of Medical Ethics blog, I’ll provide more of an evidential analysis.

Wrong on Dutch law and practice

Mr Symons said that euthanasia was legalised in the Netherlands in 2002. While technically that may be true, it's misleading. Assisted dying was actually made lawful in the Netherlands in 1982, after considerable debate and a number of court cases, when the Board of Procurators-General (the highest prosecutorial authority) formalised a set of conditions under which doctors would not be prosecuted for helping a patient die.

In practice, wider physician participation commenced in 1984 when the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) issued its own guidelines for clinical practice, based on the Procurators-General ruling, and grew to more than a thousand cases a year by the late 1990s.

It was in 2002 — when the Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide (Review Procedures) Act came into effect — that the Dutch law on assisted dying changed from regulatory to statutory.

Mr Symons also claimed that since 2002, the “Dutch legislation [has] changed several times.” That’s not true: in fact, not one word of the Act has changed since it came into effect.

Nor has there been a “steady rate of increase” in the Dutch assisted death rate since 2002 “even when there was no legislative change” as he claimed. There has been an increase, but far from ‘steady.’ Rather, it’s a sigmoid (stretched-S) curve with very little initial increase, then increasing, and then levelling out again. It’s a pattern typical of human behaviour adoption, and has occurred in both Belgium and the Netherlands.

Selective Euro-evidence

Mr Symons also claimed “significant evidence from Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg” for his argued slippery slope. Yet he quotes percentages for only the Netherlands, correctly noting that assisted deaths increased from 1.3% of all deaths in 2002 to 3.7% in 2015.

Mr Symons doesn’t mention that:

  • the Dutch assisted dying rate was lower for a number of years after 2002 than before — as physicians and the public were still getting to grips with the new Act;
  • the Netherlands’ assisted dying rate dropped between 2014 and 2015;
  • the rate in Belgium (1.8% in 2015) is half the Netherlands’;
  • the rate in the Flanders (Dutch) north of Belgium (2.5% in 2015) is higher than in the Wallonia (French) south (0.87%), suggesting that higher rates may be a characteristic of Dutch culture;
  • the rate in Luxembourg, with very similar legislation, is a tiny one twentieth of the Dutch rate — 0.18% in 2014 (the most recent year of available data); or that
  • there is no evidence to date of the rate increasing in Luxembourg.
     

Selective North American evidence

While Mr Symons reports the Dutch rate as a percentage of all deaths, he reports his only other figures (for Oregon) as raw counts: rising from 16 in 1998 (before which assisted dying was entirely illegal) to 132 in 2015. (Actually, the final figure for 2015 was 135 cases.) What he fails to mention is that the Oregon rate in 2015 was 0.38% of all deaths, just one tenth of the Dutch rate. That is, the percentage is far less ‘impressive’ to his thesis and raises questions about ‘inevitable slippery slopes.’

The increase is hardly surprising given that when conduct is made newly lawful, only a few people might pursue it in its first year, with more people pursuing it seventeen years later. Even then, one hundred and thirty-five cases out of nearly thirty-six thousand deaths is hardly a “normalisation,” as Mr Symons argues.

He also argues that Quebec’s initial figures are “alarming,” without reporting the rate as a percentage of all deaths. Data from the first year (2015–16) indicates a rate of 0.74%, slightly lower than French-speaking Wallonia in 2015 (0.87%). (Half-way through the 2015–16 period, Canada’s Federal Parliament also passed an assisted dying law.)

The latest comparative data

The latest data on assisted death rates in Benelux and North America is shown in Figure 1. As I explain in one of the most detailed comparative analyses of lawful assisted dying practice conducted to date, it is likely that the higher rates are associated with Dutch culture.

adrates7jurisdictions.gifFigure 1: Assisted dying in Benelux and North America as a percentage of all deaths

Notes: Dutch cultures appear in orange. Flanders is the northern Dutch, and Wallonia the southern French, ‘half’ of Belgium.
Sources: Government statistics offices and assisted dying authority reports; Quebec, CBC News

The case of Vermont

In the USA state of Vermont (with an Oregon-like Act since 2013), a small number of people (38) have been prescribed lethal medication in the first three years. (Data is not available by year.) Assuming for the sake of argument that all of them took the medication (while Oregon and Washington data indicates that a third or more don’t), that would equate to an assisted dying rate of around 0.27% of all deaths as an annual average for 2013­–15.

Don’t mention Switzerland

Switzerland is perhaps the most ‘inconvenient’ case for slippery slope hypotheses, which might explain why assisted dying opponents usually avoid mentioning it. It has the world’s oldest assisted suicide law, in effect since 1942. It is also the least prescriptive: the only specific statutory requirement is that any assistance rendered must not be for reasons of self-interest. That’s it.

Surely a law in effect for 73 years and devoid of all the complex requirements of others would be the foundation for an out-of-control assisted dying rate, much higher than the Netherlands at 3.7%?

It isn’t. In 2015, the rate for Swiss-resident assisted deaths was 1.4%. The rate including foreigners — in other words, with a global population of potential ‘slippery slope candidates’ — was 1.7%. That’s less than half the Dutch rate.

Conclusion

To summarise, the lawful assisted dying rate varies widely between cultures, currently by a factor of twenty. Yet there’s one thing consistent amongst them all: the most common reason for pursuing an assisted death is advanced cancer.

Ultimately, the only thing Mr Symons’ argument establishes is that he prefers to negatively describe any use of a law of which he disapproves as “normalisation,” regardless of its usage rate. If this were not true it would be incumbent on him to nominate a non-zero assisted dying rate that he thinks acceptable, but not “normalised.”

To be sure, I agree with Mr Symons that it’s important to “review the hard facts” around assisted dying.

And yet, when he promised the reader that his “valid slippery slope” argument would be based on “compelling empirical” evidence, he made incorrect or misleading statements, provided cherry-picked morsels of data, and wrapped it all up in a loaded assumption. I think that Patricia Flowers would call that ‘bullshit.’


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Professor Margaret Somerville makes an indefensible 'suicide contagion' claim.

Catholic ethicist Professor Margaret Somerville claims that every assisted suicide jurisdiction shows 'contagion' to the general suicide rate. The empirical evidence contradicts her claim.

Get the full report here.

Professor Margaret Somerville, currently Professor of Ethics in the School of Medicine at the Catholic University of Notre Dame Australia,[1] has enjoyed ongoing publication of her opinions, with few challenges published to date.

Back in 2007, Somerville, then a Professor of Ethics at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, appeared as an expert witness in an Iowa District Court case. The court comprehensively rejected her testimony, determining that she:

“…specifically eschews empirical research and methods of logical reasoning in favour of ‘moral intuition.’ She has no training in empirical research…”

Professor Somerville, I argue, has again fallen short on empirical research and logical reasoning. To illustrate, I will analyse her claim, published in an opinion piece in ABC Religion and Ethics that:

“…the general suicide rate has increased in every jurisdiction that has legalized assisted suicide.

While her claim may be her own personal opinion, she has presented it expressly stating that she is a Professor of Ethics at her current university of employment, lending the claim perceived authority.

This report demonstrates how her claim and her defence of it are contradicted by multiple sources of empirical government and other primary research evidence. It also demonstrates that she failed to engage appropriate scholarly standards that require the active search for, acquisition and analysis of all reasonably available relevant data in an attempt to answer a particular question.

In making her claim, Prof. Somerville:

  • Cites ‘supportive’ data from lawful jurisdictions while overlooking other data, sometimes even in the same data set, that are inconsistent with her claim;
  • Cites as supporting evidence an econometric modelling study that did not find a statistically-significant relationship between assisted dying law and the general (non-assisted) suicide rate;
  • Fails to consider data from all jurisdictions with assisted suicide laws while making a claim about them all — overlooking Switzerland, whose empirical data is clearly at odds with her claim;
  • Repeatedly cites non-academic anti-euthanasia lobbyist Mr Alex Schadenberg (who also cites her) as a source of evidence for her claim and who in turn quotes a television source and another lobbyist’s opinion to underpin his own beliefs about ‘suicide contagion’; and
  • Conflates voluntary euthanasia (physician-administration) with assisted suicide (patient self-administration) such that her argument, at least in the context of Belgium and the Netherlands, is substantially about the novel concept of ‘euthanasia contagion’ rather than the more familiar ‘suicide contagion’ expression she uses.
     

These findings are consistent with the Iowa court’s ruling that Prof. Somerville sometimes relies on ‘moral intuition’ rather than sound empirical research and logical reasoning.

My report also draws a number of connections between those advancing misinformation on assisted dying ‘suicide contagion,’ and Catholic identity. Catholic identity is not a reason to reject arguments, but it does help identify the source of a majority of ‘suicide contagion’ misinformation.

Finally, I argue that the appropriate course of action for Prof. Somerville is to retract her ‘suicide contagion in every jurisdiction’ claim.

 

Get the full report here.


[1]   Not to be confused with another Professor Margaret Somerville, who is Director of the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University.

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

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

She provided no sources or evidence for her claim.

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

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

Else Borst: And then it stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

Visit the YouTube page.

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