Belgium

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A new book of anti-VAD polemical anecdotes, published by Springer

The other day a TV commercial from more than 30 years ago popped into my head. It was a humorous slice-of-life scene in which a teenage son gobbles down a breakfast bowl of Sultana Bran cereal. He complains that his health-kick girlfriend had made him eat vegetarian the night before. His family eye each other with mirth as he eats.

The punch line? “Don’t mention it’s healthy and they’ll eat it by the boxful.”

sultana_bran_ad_1990.jpg The Kellogg's Sultana Bran TV commercial from 1990.

Despite having worked in advertising research for years, I’m sure I hadn’t thought of this ad for at least a couple of decades. So what brought this vignette suddenly to mind?

It was the release of a new book by academic publisher, Springer: Devos, T, (Ed.) 2021, Euthanasia: Searching for the Full Story - Experiences and Insights of Belgian Doctors and Nurses, Springer, Leuven.

How terrific to have a new academic tome on the Belgian voluntary assisted dying (VAD) experience, I thought, as I downloaded the eBook version.

But then…

Imagine my surprise and disappointment then, to discover this is no scholarly tome with ethics-committee-approved study methodologies, carefully cited and transparent sources whose authenticity and veracity could be checked by anyone with a smidgin of scholarly acumen.

No, the kindest description I can give this blancmange of offenses is… a series of “essays” all singing from the same hymn sheet. More on that shortly.

The book launches into — let’s not beat about the bush — bullshit from the get go. In the Foreword, Jacques Ricot invokes the Hippocratic Oath as a still-relevant “religious standard”. Oh dear. You mean that oath that prohibits surgery, prevents women from entering the profession, and swears allegiance to ancient Greek gods?

He then goes on to describe VAD as a “desperate act of two people [the doctor and patient] trapped by helplessness.” He invokes cracks opening up in sea walls and waves that can only widen them. There’s your horizontal oceanic equivalent of the inevitable “slippery slope”.

Helpfully, he forewarns that all the authors in the book “do not believe that euthanasia can be a medical or a caring act.” OK, so not a range of views, then.

He also refers to the authors as “resistance fighters”, giving a heads-up that these writers feel they’re losing the battle.

And yet more

Then, anti-VAD campaigner Margaret Somerville repeats her rubbish claims that legalised VAD leads to suicide contagion. I’ve repeatedly taken Somerville to task over her serial misinformation, as well as noting the latest evidence from Switzerland which VAD opponents never mention… for a reason.

Somerville repeats yet again her refrain that “the case against [versus for] euthanasia is much more difficult to promote … because it is more complex”. No, it isn’t. It’s just that the majority now no longer take conservative religious doctrine as … shall we say, “gospel”. That’s especially true when her strongest ambit is to appeal to “a human way of knowing” (without mentioning her hobby horse, “moral intuition”, by name), and expressly noting that the stories that follow are not based on the usual scientific standards of evidence.

And there you have it. A series of “essays” by persons ideologically opposed to VAD, adorned with numerous uncheckable anecdotes and tawdry claims, appeals to slippery slopes, misrepresentation of data such as the non-voluntary euthanasia rate in Belgium, “intuitive” claims that the bereaved suffer as badly from lawful VAD as do families of those who have suicided violently and alone (despite multiple peer-reviewed studies showing VAD bereaved cope well). The list goes on.

Who are these people?

This of course begs the question: who are these people putting themselves forward as experts in VAD? Remember, these are people claiming expertise in a subject they’ve never participated in, and swear they never will. No doubt they are indeed experts in their own individual disciplines. But not in VAD.

It’s like asking (only) a bunch of hardened atheists to write an authoritative book on Christian spirituality.

Well, many of the names are already well-known in VAD (and especially anti-VAD) circles. Others took a bit of research to track down. Much of the work for the following backgrounders was accomplished by my friend the talented Chrys Stevenson. We compared notes.

The point of the research was not to attempt an inappropriate ad hominem attack. Without attempting to bore, I’ve already given a host of reasons as to why the quality of the essays in this book are very low. No, the point is to find common influences and agendas as to why that might be.

So lean in, dear reader, here we go. And to aid comprehension, may I suggest that you watch for the words in bold?

The editor — Timothy Devos

Timothy Devos is a Professor of Medicine (haematology) at Catholic University Leuven. He is a past president of the Medicine and Dignity of Man Association, an apostolate of the Catholic Regnum Christi movement, which believes that “the positions adopted by the Catholic Church in matters of bioethics are good, prudent”.

Foreword 1 — Jacques Ricot

Jacques Ricot is an Associate Researcher at Nantes University in France. In a 2003 paper he argues that secular philosophy needs to draw on the religious understanding of forgiveness. In 2014 he attended a conference on “dying with dignity” at the Catholic Notre Dame, Paris, articulating views harmonious with Catholic doctrine. In 2018, the European Federation of Catholic Doctors Associations and the Catholic Centre of French Doctors thanked him for valuable contributions to their thinking about human medicine.

Foreword 2 — Margaret Somerville

Professor of Bioethics at the (Catholic) University of Notre Dame Australia. (This is curious given that her CV mentions no earned tertiary qualification in either ethics or philosophy.) Somerville is a loyal Catholic who has for years been given pre-eminent position regarding Catholic bioethics above even the church itself at the L.J. Goody Bioethics Centre, as I’ve pointed out before.

The L.J. Goody Bioethics Centre is run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Perth. The Catholic Archbishops of Perth and Sydney are the ultimate controllers of the University of Notre Dame Australia.

Foreword 2 — Wesley Ely

Dr Wesley Ely is a Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville, Tennessee. He is President of the Nashville Guild of the Catholic Medical Association. He has given numerous addresses from a Catholic perspective on topics such as “Preaching the gospel through service”, “Five principles of service in living the gospel”, “Deepening our prayer life”, “Viaticum: lessons learned from dying patients seeking our Lord”, “Top 10 tips at the heart of Christian discernment” and “A treatise on the true devotion to the blessed virgin by a lay doctor”.

Contributor — Eric Vermeer

Mr Vermeer is a nurse educator and the ordained Deacon of the Catholic diocese of Namur. His adopted son is also a Catholic priest. He is a past President of the European Institute of Bioethics, a group that claims to be independent and not of a religious nature, yet “attentive to religious traditions”. It lobbies for positions that are consistent with Vatican doctrine, such as against abortion and VAD. Quite a number of the Institute’s committees are known religious people, including some from the Catholic University of Leuven.

Mr Vermeer has recorded an anti-VAD video for ADF International, which runs the Arete Academy, a centre for religious academics based on “excellence and moral value”… at least according to their interpretation of the Bible.

Contributor — Catherine Dopchie

Dr Catherine Dopchie is an oncologist at the Centre Hospital of Wallonia. She told the Society for Religious Information Italy, published by the Catholic Press Agency, that “death is the enemy of mankind”, that “we have been created for life”, that “those who have met God in their lives, know that death is not the winner”, and that “every man is precious to God and that the entire life is sacred”.

Dr Dopchie has also recorded an anti-VAD video making unsubstantiated claims, for ADF International.

Contributor — Willem Lemmens

Having earned his doctorate at the Catholic University of Leuven, Professor Willem Lemmens is now Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Antwerp. In 2018, Professor Lemmens argued against VAD at the (Catholic) Anscombe Bioethics Centre in the UK, and spoke with Catholic newspaper Crux, to spread the misinformation that Belgium’s law was originally only for terminal illness (it never was), and to complain that (Catholic) Belgian Brothers of Charity were now allowing VAD to occur in their healthcare facilities.

He also sits on the General Council of the University Centre Saint-Ignatius Antwerp, which was established by a Jesuit (Catholic) order, and whose purpose is to continue to promote Jesuit Christian ideology.

Contributor — An Haekens

Dr An Haekens was educated at the Catholic University Leuven. She is a psychiatrist and medical director at the (Catholic) Alexian Care Group in Tienen, Belgium. It was established by the (Catholic) Belgian Brothers of Charity and states that “we start from our own Christian identity” and “we want to keep alive and implement the spirituality of the Alexians”.

Dr Haekens writes periodically for Belgian Catholic magazine Tertio, including stating that she would never participate in VAD. In 2021 she was interviewed by Belgian Catholic radio station Radio Maria, having been awarded the annual prize for spiritual care by the Professional Association of Care Pastors, the association for Catholic chaplains.

She is married to Dr Didier Pollefeyt, Catholic Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven. He is also an Honorary Professor at the Australian Catholic University.

Contributor — Rivka Karplus

Dr Rivka Karplus is a family physician and an internal medicine and infections specialist, based in Israel. In 2018 he attended a colloquium at the College des Bernardins in Paris — a Catholic theological and biblical studies centre — as a representative of the Jerusalem Kehilla, a congregation of Hebrew-speaking Catholics. He is warmly cited in a 2016 anti-VAD publication by the Catholic Caritas in Veritate Foundation, which attempts to provide representatives at the UN and other international organisations with Catholic, Christian “expertise and strategic thinking”.

Contributor — Marie Frings

Dr Marie Frings is a Brussells-based GP specialising in palliative care. She writes for Catholic group Consecrated Lives which promotes increasing evangelical commitments. In such an article in 2007, she cites the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as an authority on end-of-life decisions, and notes that sometimes she felt uncomfortable that patients would have their arms tied to be force-fed against their wishes so they lived indefinitely. She firmed her views that tube feeding was not mandatory when it is an extraordinary measure, with the help of several Catholic theologians and the pro-life committee of the episcopal conference of American (Catholic) Bishops.

She argued “respecting the conscience of others” in this regard, yet expressly rejects such conscience when it comes to choosing a peaceful, hastened death by VAD.

Contributor — Benoit Beuselinck

Dr Benoit Beuselinck graduated from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, and has for years worked in the university’s hospitals. In 2017 he spoke at an anti-VAD conference at the Catholic Anscombe Bioethics Centre in the UK.

In an article in the Catholic magazine Logia, he claims that “proper palliative care makes assisted dying unnecessary”, even though it is well-established that this isn’t true.

He alleges in the Catholic Herald that Belgian nurses and social workers are quitting their jobs because palliative care units are being turned into “houses of euthanasia”, and that doctors in palliative care units “have to euthanise patients”. He also claims that some patients are afraid to go to hospital in case they are either coerced into euthanasia or are deliberately killed without their consent. This is a perversion of the original Netherlands accusation by the Vatican, which itself was entirely false.

Dr Beuselinck has also made an anti-VAD video for ADF International, making unsubstantiated claims that “doctors hide behind their patients’ wishes”, “supply creates demand”, “the doctor has his back to the wall”, “we want euthanasia for everyone”, “doctors who prefer not to do it are not respected”. He cherry-picks Belgian non-voluntary euthanasia data to wrongly make the case that their VAD law has caused (or at least worsened) that practice; the opposite of the truth. He says that euthanasia is an act against nature, opens the floodgates, that we no longer favour the love we show in taking care of someone, and that the depressed may now think “if the doctor can kill, then what is my life worth?”

Contributor — Julie Blanchard

Dr Julie Blanchard is a French-trained GP who specialises in palliative care. She works at the Catholic University of Leuven’s second hospital, in Namur, and never participates in VAD. Contrary to Dr Beuselinck’s claims that palliative care workers opposed to VAD are disrespected and forced to participate, Dr Blanchard reports that other doctors respect her opposition, and that VAD teams take care to ensure those who are against VAD are not present at the time of a lethal injection.

It's astonishing how inconsistencies like this — those opposing VAD are respected but are not respected — reduce the book’s coherence.

Contributor — François Trufin

François Trufin is an emergency nurse at St Nikolaus Hospital in Eupen, Belgium. The hospital was founded and continues to be sponsored by the Catholic church, “continuing [the] obligation of the founders” for a “Christian worldview”.

Religious petticoats and the Catholic Communicator’s Guild

So there you have it: the Catholic connections of the people involved in the production of this risible nonsense, which brims with innuendo, arguments and misinformation consistent with those of the Catholic church and other Catholic apologists.

I’ve written before how Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher has expressly argued for organising a line-up of sympathetic (i.e. Catholic) doctors, lawyers and others to put such information about, and yet, how they hide their religious petticoats while doing so. I’ve further exposed a network of Catholics who promote the church’s line on VAD — a network I call the Catholic Communicator’s Guild.

This book furnishes an international example of the same principle: a group of Catholics promoting entrenched church lines on VAD, but hiding their religious petticoats all the while.

You may wonder how many times the word “Catholic” appears in said book. The answer is: exactly zero. And mentions of “religion” and “faith” appear as abstract and conceptual argument, e.g. if a person of faith…

Not the first time it’s been published

But a further issue arises in respect of this book: it’s not the first time it’s been published. It was published two years ago by Mols Editions (Wavre) under the title Euthanasia: Behind the Scenes — Reflections and Experiences of Caregivers. Tellingly, it was published in French and mentions the French parliament grappling with VAD law reform. (The current French VAD Bill, which appears to be supported by a majority of MPs, has been filibustered with well over 2,000 (two thousand) amendments submitted by just five MPs.)

Unlike the original which you have to buy, this Springer version is “Open Access”, meaning you can download the book from the publisher for free. So is this further edition vanity publishing?

The reason I ask is that Springer Publishing is owned by Springer Nature. That’s a company whose purpose is to make money for its owners via academic publishing. So publications have to be paid for either by sales, or by authors. Since there are no sales, the authors (or someone on their behalf) will have had to pay for the book.

According to their fee schedule, Springer charge US$15k (around AUD$20k) plus taxes for publishing a tome of this nature.

So: who paid for the book?

Conclusion

Far from a carefully researched collection of studies into VAD practice in Belgium, this polemical book relies heavily on the “moral intuitions” of innuendo, unverified anecdote and misinformation. It’s consistent with the propaganda put about by the Catholic church, yet not once throughout the entire book does anyone mention their deep Catholic connections. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking they’d taken some care to cover their religious petticoats.

A serious compendium of proper, scholarly studies of VAD practice, good and bad, is always welcome. This book is not it.

In my view, the tome does no favours for Springer, which has a solid reputation for academic and scholarly publication.

And, back to that 1990 TV commercial for boxes of breakfast cereal. It had popped into my head as an analogue: “Don’t mention it’s religious and they’ll publish it by the book-full.”


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The Netherlands 2020 assisted dying report card confirms a steady rate

The Netherlands euthanasia commission has just released its 2020 annual report.

The report shows that the number of cases rose around 9% over the 2019 year. However, the number of total deaths was also up, resulting in a continuation of relatively level rate in recent years (Figure 1).

netherlandsbelgium2020.gif
Figure 1: The assisted dying rate in the Netherlands and Belgium

With Covid-19 deaths having contributed towards a modest net increase in total deaths last year, the assisted dying rate is likely to be modestly higher in the coming year.


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Beligum and Oregon released their annual VAD reports this week.

Belgium and the USA state of Oregon both released their annual voluntary assisted dying (VAD) reports this week. I report on the numbers.

While the Netherlands and Washington state haven't released their 2020 annual VAD report cards yet, Belgium and Oregon have.

Belgium

Back in 2016 I wrote a detailed Whitepaper on assisted dying practice in Benelux, including data up to 2015. In it, I pointed out that in several years' time the trend to increasing rates of VAD would level off, like a sigmoidal (stretched-S shape) curve, as does most human adoption of new behaviours.

That time has arrived. The most recent data from both the Netherlands and Belgium shows that in both countries, the VAD rate, as a proportion of all deaths, has generally levelled off (Figure 1).

dutchbeligianvadlong2021.gif Figure 1: VAD deaths as a proportion of all deaths in the Netherlands and Belgium
Sources: Official Euthanasia Commission reports; Government total death statistics

The cultural rate of VAD in the Netherlands appears to be around 4.3% of all deaths, while in Belgium it's around 2.4%. No doubt these figures will vary slightly over coming years, but shrill pronouncements that the rate would continue to rocket higher and higher are refuted by the evidence.

That Belgium's “level” VAD rate is significantly lower than the Netherlands' despite quite similar (though not identical) laws, suggests that VAD rates are influenced more by cultural and other factors beyond the specific provisions of formal statutes and regulations.

Oregon

Meanwhile, in the state of Oregon, the Death With Dignity Act (DWDA) was revised in 2019. Previously, some people suffering intolerably at the very end of life were excluded from using the Act if they died within 15 days of deciding to use the Act. This was due to a fixed, mandatory 15-day cooling off period. Yet in the last weeks and months of life, an individual's condition can take a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse, so that previously the person may have not qualified for other reasons or felt they still had time to apply for access, and now would not qualify the 15 day cooling off period.

The cooling off provisions were updated by Oregon's legislature in 2019 to allow access without the cooling off period, in cases where the person is, in professional medical opinion — and with a formal declaration to the effect — reasonably likely to die before the 15 days had elapsed.

The revision was in effect for the entire 2020 calendar year.

As a consequence, some people felt they didn't need to apply quite so early “just in case” they might want to use the law, while others who would have been excluded altogether were able to use the law. This accounts for a slight dip in the “old” provisions rate, along with a rise in the total proportion of DWDA deaths (Figure 2).

oregondwdalong2021.gifFigure 2: Oregon DWDA deaths as a proportion of all deaths, new-rule data in light blue
Source: Oregon DWDA annual reports; Government total death statistics

Oregon's overall rate of VAD remains much lower than in the Netherlands and Belgium, whose laws are not restricted to cases of terminal illness.

However, in no case has any parliament legislated to limit cases to a numbered cap. In all jurisdictions, legislation focuses on the conditions under which a person may become eligible to access VAD choice, regardless of the actual numbers requesting and qualifying for access.


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There's a good reason why assisted dying opponents don't mention Switzerland. [Photo by Andrew Bossi]

Supposed Dutch suicide contagion from assisted dying

Recently, Dr Theo Boer, an Assistant Professor at a "black-stocking" (strongly conservative Protestant) theological college in the Netherlands, was at it again — criticising the Dutch euthanasia law to anyone who would listen: "don't follow the Dutch euthanasia law path because it leads to 'suicide contagion'".

I've exposed Prof. Boer's cherry-picked nonsense before. Astonishingly, he even ignores data from the Dutch Euthanasia Commission, despite the fact he used to serve on one of its five Regional Review Committees.

What he doesn't mention is that amongst the five Regions, the Region with by far the highest rate of assisted deaths had the second-lowest rate of general suicide, and the Region with the lowest assisted death rate had by far the highest general suicide rate (Figure 1) in 2014,1 the year Boer left his Committee and began bad-mouthing the Dutch law. Quite the opposite of "suicide contagion".

dutchvadandsuiciderates.gifFigure 1: Dutch assisted death and general suicide rates by region, 2014

From multiple safeguards to just one

The Dutch euthanasia Act has a number of safeguards that stipulate who may qualify to access assisted dying in the Netherlands, and how qualification is assessed, implemented and reported to the authorities.

But there's another country that permits assisted dying with just one provision: Switzerland.

In effect since 1942, an exception in the Criminal Code permits assisted suicide, provided assistance is rendered for non-selfish motives. That's it. There's no legislated (or even government-regulated) requirements for age, illness or condition, decisional capacity, cooling off periods, or anything else.

In the 1980s, two assisted dying associations were formed to make assisted dying generally possible: Exit Deutsche Schweiz for German-speaking Swiss residents, and Exit A.D.M.D. for French-speaking residents.

Since then, several other smaller associations have been formed, including in 1998 Dignitas, which provides assistance to foreigners. (The main societies assist only Swiss residents.) The current membership of the societies, combined, is well in excess of 150,000 people, in a population of just 8.5 million. Assisted dying is often discussed openly in the media.

If "contagion" anywhere, in Switzerland, right?

Given that Switzerland has an abundance of the ingredients that religious opponents of assisted dying claim lead to "suicide contagion", you'd think they'd be shouting about Swiss "suicide contagion" from the rooftops.

But they don't mention Switzerland.

There's a powerful reason why: the data is not only unhelpful to their "contagion" theory, but actively hostile to it.

Latest official government data

I've written about Switzerland before, but, given the ongoing "suicide contagion" misinformation, I thought an update warranted. On request, my contact in the Swiss Federal Statistical Office (FSO) promptly re-supplied all publicly-available statistics of assisted deaths and general suicides, with the data now running up to 2017.

It makes for interesting reading. Figure 2 shows Switzerland's (CH) long-term general (non-assisted) suicide rate, along with the domestic (Swiss resident) and Dignitas (foreigner) assisted death rates. All the official (Australian Bureau of Statistics) longitudinal data I could find for Australia's (AU) general suicide rate is also included.

swissdeathratesto2017.gifFigure 2: Swiss death rates 1969–2017; Australian suicide rates 1990–2017

Immediately obvious is that the Swiss general suicide rate has dropped massively and consistently since the two main assistance societies were formed in the early 1980s. And it's continued to drop even as the rate of assistance, and public discussion, has increased over the most recent three decades.

I also asked the FSO how many cases on record were of minors (persons under the age of majority or 18 years). The answer? None. I double-checked. Zero. Zip. No minors receiving assisted dying in Switzerland. Indeed, cases under the age of 35 years old are uncommon.

Consistent with best practice

Indeed, the data is consistent with suicide prevention. The societies help people get the medical care they need and consider assisted death only when other avenues have failed to provide acceptable relief. Every assisted death is reported as such by the association to the authorities — otherwise the unexpected death would result in a coronial inquiry.

Each association has clearly-defined processes and oversight by ethics specialists. Clients requesting access are assessed carefully by doctors. (In fact, the lethal medication can only be lawfully obtained by medical prescription.) The associations take their responsibilities very seriously.

The data is also consistent with substitution: that what would have been some violent and lonely suicides as a result of unrelievable suffering from intractable conditions, are now peaceful assisted deaths.

And for the record, despite the Swiss law being in effect since 1942 versus Dutch regulation from only 1984; and Swiss law having only one provision versus Dutch regulation/legislation with many; in 2017 the Swiss assisted dying rate, including Dignitas cases, as a percent of all deaths, was less than half that of the Netherlands' rate.

Reasons for requesting an assisted death

Exit Deutsche Schweiz, by far the largest of the Swiss associations, has published statistics of its cases (Figure 3).

exitdsreasons2015.gifFigure 3: Reasons for pursuing assisted dying, Exit Deutsch Schweiz 2015

In 2015, like other jurisdictions, cancer was by far the most common reason (40.8%) for requesting an assisted death. Polymorbidities (22.4%) was next, followed by refractory pain at 8.6%, lung diseases at 5.0% and Parkinsons at 4.3%.

Despite no government-regulated access requirements, assistance for mental illness was very low at 1.7% (Dutch 1.2% in 2015) and cases of dementia at 1.4% (Dutch 2.0%; Belgian combined mental/dementia 3.1% in 2015).

And compared to Australia?

In the 1990s, the Swiss general suicide rate, although falling, was significantly higher than Australia's (Figure 2) until 2010, when the rates were the same. Since 2010, the Swiss suicide rate (with no legislated procedures for its permitted assisted dying) has continued to drop, while Australia's (at that time with no assisted dying law at all), began to rise.

This difference highlights the clear anchoring bias exhibited by religious opponents who cherry-pick their data to try and claim the rise in the Dutch general suicide rate must be the result of "suicide contagion" from assisted dying, when Australia's rate also increased over the same time period, but in the complete absence of an assisted dying law. (Victoria's assisted dying legislation didn't come into effect until mid-2019.)

Further, the Swiss rate has continued to drop even with a significant increase in assisted dying.

Conclusion

Of course, general suicide is a serious issue. It has numerous well-known risk factors (e.g. mental health, substance abuse, unemployment, relationship breakdown, opportunity) and protective factors (e.g. hotlines, funding mental health programs, unemployment benefits, removing opportunity), none of which assisted dying opponents mention while cherry-picking their statistics.

Meanwhile, as legislators contemplate the specific safeguards contained in Bills before their legislatures, it's important to strike an appropriate balance between sufficient safeguards, and inappropriately requiring those considering an assisted death to climb Mount Everest with one hand tied behind their backs.

Switzerland shows that even in a jurisdiction without legislated practices, access to assisted dying is modest, with assistance groups establishing their own stringent ethical and procedural standards.

And it amply demonstrates even under those conditions, an absence of supposed "suicide contagion".

-----

1 Official Euthanasia Commission data and official Dutch government suicide statistics by region.


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The Catholic Church's video which blatantlly misrepresents Belgium

The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney has released a video which blatantly misrepresents scholarly research about non-voluntary euthanasia practices in Belgium. The lead author of the peer-reviewed research has slammed the video as "cherry-picked", "scaremongering" and "appalling". His full statement about the video appears below.

 

Watch the 1 minute video here.

 

Back in 1998, non-voluntary euthanasia  — or NVE — was carefully studied by Belgian scholars. It’s a problematic practice, even though often the medication doctors administered didn’t actually hasten death. They found it occured in 3.2% of all deaths.

In 2002, the Belgium parliament legalised voluntary assisted dying — or VAD.

In 2007, the Belgian scholars repeated their study and found that NVE had dropped by nearly HALF, to 1.8% of all deaths. Again in 2013, it was found to remain at a lower level, 1.7% (Figure 1).

belgiumnvechart2.jpg
Figure 1: Belgium's NVE rate has dropped dramatically since VAD was legalised

Thus, the State shining a bright light on end-of-life practices, including VAD, has resulted in improvements.

NVE has also been found to occur in every jurisdiction that’s been studied, VAD law or not, including Australia and New Zealand (Figure 2).

nvecountries.jpg
Figure 2: NVE has been found in every jurisdiction that's been studied

But the Catholic church would have you believe otherwise.

In a recent video, the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney grotesquely misrepresented a single statistic from the Belgian studies. Using cold colours and the sound of a flatlining heartbeat, the Catholic video claims Belgium’s VAD law has caused its NVE. It’s a chilling confection of innuendo that thumbs its nose at the facts.

The Belgian study the church relies on expressly points out the significant NVE drop, so it’s not like they wouldn’t know.

 belgianstudyreportsdrop.jpg
Figure 3: The study expressly points out the significant drop

It's no wonder that lead scholar of the Belgian research, Assistant Professor Kenneth Chambaere, called the Church’s video “cherry-picked", “a blatant misrepresentation”, “scaremongering” and “appalling”. Professor Chambaere's full response appears below.

Despite the unambiguous evidence, multiple Catholic lobbyists have used cherry-picked NVE rates in a similar way, like:

 
I’ve directly corrected their misleading claims before. Yet here we go again with the same unconscionable nonsense.

Interestingly, at a 2011 Catholic conference, Archbishop Anthony Fisher said:

“the man or woman in the street … may well be open to persuasion that permissive laws … cannot be effectively narrowed to such practices”

and

“we need to research and propose new messages”

Note that the Archbishop proposed... new messages. In his address he didn't propose to examine if his assumed calamities were valid or not.

The Church is entitled to opinions, but promoting misinformation doesn’t seem to be very Christian. The Church should withdraw its grotesque propaganda and apologise.

In conclusion, repeating fake news doesn’t make it true. The fact remains that Belgium’s NVE practice was considerably higher before it legalised VAD, and dropped significantly after.


Prof. Kenneth Chambaere's response in full

On viewing the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney's video on Belgian NVE, which cites Prof. Chambaere's 2007 study, Prof. Chambaere made the following statement:

13th July 2019
 
Recently, a Vimeo video of the Archdiocese of Sydney on 'Debate on Euthanasia Laws' was brought to my attention: https://vimeo.com/339920133.

As lead author of the cited research, I was appalled at the video's blatant misrepresentation of the robust and honest research that we have been conducting in Belgium. It is quite frankly an insult to us as researchers who day in day out work to generate reliable and trustworthy insights into end-of-life practice in Belgium.
 
It is clear to me that the video has cherry-picked results from our studies to the effect of scaremongering among the public. As researchers, we fully grasp the emotional, ethical and societal gravity of the euthanasia practice and therefore also euthanasia research, and we never take it lightly. We believe we are always as objective and impartial as possible, as is to be expected of independent and free research. This only adds to my duty as a scientist to respond to the video in question and correct its mistakes. The general public and politicians must have access to reliable and correct evidence.
 
First of all, the figures shown in the video do not concern euthanasia practices at all. Euthanasia is by definition always at the explicit request of the patient. What the figures do refer to are physician acts to hasten a dying patient's death without their explicit request, a separate type of end-of-life practice altogether (see further).
 
Secondly, yes, this problematic practice does exist in Belgium. But so does it exist in every other country where anyone has had the audacity to conduct research into it, euthanasia law or no euthanasia law.
 
Thirdly, the incidence of such practices has halved since the euthanasia law was enacted in Belgium.
 
Conclusion: acts of hastening death without explicit request are not a by-product of euthanasia legislation, and if anything, euthanasia legislation seems to decrease the occurrence of these practices. This conclusion features prominently in the paper cited in the video.
 
This practice even exist in Australia, and in significant numbers, according to one (potentially outdated) study. While this study was not identical to ours in Belgium, it still provides clear evidence of its occurrence in Australian end-of-life practice. The authors of the video ask whether Victoria will become like Belgium? If it means diminishing rates of these questionable practices, then surely becoming more like Belgium is a good thing!
 
Lastly, a 2014 detailed analysis in CMAJ Open clarified much about what these cases of hastening death without explicit request entail. I quote our conclusion here: "Most of the cases we studied did not fit the label of "nonvoluntary life-ending" for at least one of the following reasons: the drugs were administered with a focus on symptom control; a hastened death was highly unlikely; or the act was taken in accordance with the patient's previously expressed wishes. Thus, we recommend a more nuanced view of life-ending acts without explicit patient request in the debate on physician-assisted dying."
 
This is not to condone or excuse physicians who engage in such practices, but it is important to know and be clear about what we are focusing our societal discussions on.
 
The question then is, why did the authors of the video overlook these clear conclusions during their extensive review of the evidence? It is very difficult to see how our research could be misrepresented in the way it has been in the video. The research is very clear and it does not support the claims made in the video. I urge anyone relying on the large body of peer-reviewed evidence to analyse it carefully, and if necessary consult with the authors, before communicating to the general public.

Assistant Professor Kenneth Chambaere
End of Life Care Research Group
Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Belgium


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The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney has released a grotesque and appalling video that blatantly misrepresents Belgium's non-voluntary euthanasia practices as being 'caused' by their voluntary assisted dying law. They're not.

 

Read a more detailed report here.

 

Video narrative

“Belgian scholars have researched the country's non-voluntary euthanasia rate (or NVE) over a number of years.

Their findings unambiguously show that Belgium's NVE rate was much higher BEFORE it legalised voluntary assisted dying (or VAD), and dropped significantly afterwards.

Yet the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney has released a grotesque video which cherry-picks just the 2007 figure to claim that Belgium's VAD law has caused its NVE practices.

But the NVE drop is no secret: it's expressly stated in the very research the Church cites.

It's no wonder that lead researcher, Assistant Professor Kenneth Chambaere, called the Church’s video “cherry-picked", “a blatant misrepresentation”, “scaremongering” and “appalling”.

The video casts serious doubts over the Church's competence in assessing scholarly evidence, and calls into question its desire to avoid misinformation.

To conclude, Belgium's NVE rate dropped dramatically, and has remained lower, after it legalised voluntary assisted dying.”

 

Visit the YouTube page.

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'HOPE' is pedalling assisted dying misinformation to politicians again.

The Catholic-backed anti-assisted-dying ginger group, HOPE, was represented for years by Paul Russell. He's retired and Branka van der Linden is now at the helm. But its penchant for pedaling egregious misinformation hasn't changed. Van der Linden recently sent an email to all WA members of parliament, containing three points.

Van der Linden's email reads:

 

Dear [MP salutation],

Did you know that the WA majority report that recommended assisted suicide for WA either dismissed or failed to report on the following statistics?

  • In the Netherlands in 2015, 431 people were euthanised without their explicit consent.
  • In Belgium, 8 per cent of all deaths were without explicit consent from the patient.
  • In Oregon in 2017, the ingestion status of 44 (out of 218) patients was ‘unknown’, making it impossible to ascertain if these 44 patients ended their lives voluntarily and without coercion.

Yours faithfully,

Branka van der Linden

Director, HOPE

 

The trouble is, all three claims by van der Linden are either directly false or egregiously misleading. Here are the actual facts:

FACT: Peer-reviewed scientific research shows that the non-voluntary euthanasia rate of both the Netherlands and Belgium has dropped significantly since their assisted dying Acts came into effect in 2002, consistent with more careful end-of-life decision making across the board.

Fiction 1: van der Linden improperly cherry-picked a single year’s statistic for each country (and, incoherently, a raw count for one but a percentage for the other), implying that lawful voluntary euthanasia increases non-voluntary euthanasia, when the opposite is true.

Fiction 2: van der Linden claimed Belgium’s non-voluntary euthanasia rate is 8%. It has never been anywhere near that figure: the most recent figure is 1.7% and it was 3.2% before Belgium’s euthanasia law.

FACT: Oregon’s health department actively matches death certificates with prescriptions issued for assisted dying. At any time some prescriptions have not been taken and the person may still be alive, and for the deceased, death certificates are still being processed. This naturally means that some prescription/death statuses will temporarily be ‘unknown’ to authorities, even though they will be later determined.

Fiction 3: van der Linden comically implies that this proper process is sinister.

It's curious how 'HOPE' likes to repeatedly demonstrate how HOPElessly uninformed it is about the actual facts and that its methods include cherry-picking data which it thinks supports its anti-assisted dying case, but which don't.

Western Australians deserve better than HOPE's silly propaganda campaign.


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A forensic analysis exposes Theo Boer's smoke and mirrors on 'suicide contagion'

In my most recent article in the Journal of Assisted Dying, I forensically analyse Dutch ethicist Professor Theo Boer’s 2017 paper purporting to find suicide contagion from assisted dying in the Netherlands. It doesn’t go well for Professor Boer, to put it mildly. You can find the full article here.

I also find an astonishing coincidence that occurred in 2014, the year Boer went feral against the Dutch euthanasia law.

Multiple fatal flaws

In the ‘analysis’ outlined in his article, Boer commits a number of fatal scientific no-noes, including failing to analyse the variable he actually surmised might cause suicide contagion, cherry-picking data that supported his conclusion while ignoring or offhandedly dismissing data at odds with his conclusion, and wrongly forming a causative conclusion from a simple correlation while failing to control for any confounding variables of which there are many.

A litany of scientific offences

In addition to the fatal flaws, Boer’s article contains numerous other scientific and academic offences. My forensic analysis concludes:

“In summary, Boer’s article contains a litany of scientific and scholarly failures. Its speculations are ill-informed, poorly-assembled, incoherent in places and mostly uncited, the data cherry-picked and invalidly interpreted, and the laissez faire methodology incapable of validly supporting its conclusion.
 

Boer conjures up mere smoke and mirrors to argue suicide contagion from VAD in the Netherlands. The article should be retracted.”

The article also reflects badly on the journal that published this smoke and mirrors: the Journal of Ethics in Mental Health. Neither peer review nor editorial effort identified or attempted to correct any of the nonsense in the article.

What was he thinking?

Professor Boer is an expert in Reformist Protestant theology. As a religious ethicist, it’s astonishing that he considered himself suited to conducting and publishing a ‘causative’ scientific study.

In his article, Boer proposed VAD as the only factor to contribute to changes in the Netherlands’ general suicide rate (and dismissed the Belgian data which contradicted his theory).

In reality, numerous risk and protective factors affect the suicide rate, and in the Netherlands as I’ve established using their official government data, just one factor — unemployment — explains 80% of the variance in the Dutch suicide rate since 1960. Boer casually dismisses this without providing the faintest fume of an empirical analysis himself.

Boer’s article did little but amply demonstrate his underlying anchoring and confirmation bias on the subject, his unfamiliarity with the complexity of suicide, and ignorance of proper scientific principles.

For good measure, he casually threw in a comment about “suicide contagion” or copycat suicides, without understanding that in suicide, copying is the method of causing death. But by definition, general suiciders don’t follow the provisions of the euthanasia Act.

His endeavour made as little sense as me writing a conclusive article about Reformist Protestant theology, about which I know very little.

A copycat analysis?

Coincidentally, the structure of the storyline, the litany of scientific offences committed, and the conclusions reached in Boer’s article were surprisingly similar to those in an ‘analysis’ of Oregon’s suicide rate in another paper by Jones and Paton. Like Boer, Jones and Paton start out by surmising that assisted dying ought to lower the general suicide rate, and conclude the opposite.

Boer approvingly cites the Jones and Paton article, even though a forensic analysis found no fewer than ten major scientific flaws in it and provided multiple sources of empirical evidence at odds with the article’s conclusions.

But Boer manages to cock even the citation up, referring to the article’s authors as Holmes and Paton.

Will the real Theo Boer please stand up?

Boer notes that he’s always been a euthanasia sceptic. Nevertheless, as a Reformist Protestant, he had long accepted assisted dying in “emergency” situations, of which intolerable and otherwise unrelievable suffering is a ‘qualifying’ criterion, and which is the substance of the Dutch euthanasia law (it’s regarded in legal circles as a law of “necessity”). He also opined that the Dutch model was a decent one that other jurisdictions could emulate.

Boer served as the ethicist member of one of the five Dutch euthanasia review commissions, examining every case reported to it between 2005 and 2014.

In 2014 he publicly quit his post on the review committee, slamming the Dutch assisted dying system. He’s been badmouthing it to anyone who will listen, since.

In preparation for this analysis, I asked Boer if his vocal opposition to the Dutch assisted dying model was now based on an in-principle opposition to assisted dying, or only in regard to more recent practice under the Dutch euthanasia Act. Despite a couple of iterations, I didn’t get a specific answer.

The law hasn’t changed

Here’s the point. While Boer repeatedly opines that things changed radically in the Netherlands around 2007, the country’s euthanasia Act hasn’t changed since it was passed in 2001 (and came into effect in 2002). Not. One. Word.

In addition, the Dutch Supreme Court determined in 1994 that individuals with mental (in the absence of concomitant physical) illness could qualify under the then regulatory euthanasia framework, and it was found that cases occurred every year.

And the 2001 Act formalised in statute the regulatory framework that had existed since at least 1984, when the Dutch medical association first published guidelines for euthanasia.

Thus, the Act reflects very long-standing practice, and it hasn’t changed since it was enacted, in contrast to Boer’s claim that things have radically changed.

Flimsy and incoherent ‘ethics’ part 1

This brings us to the first fatal incoherence of Boer’s “ethics”: that he now opposes the law because people with psychiatric illness and other conditions are, in slightly increasing numbers, availing themselves of the euthanasia law. It is these cases against which Boer rails, despite having previously said the Dutch model is a good example for the world, and having actively participated in the system.

Boer’s flip flop is to argue that a law that permits assisted dying under a range of medical conditions (and has done so for decades) is a good law, provided some of those who might qualify (like psychiatric cases) never use it.

Try and explain the ethics behind that position.

Flimsy and incoherent ‘ethics’ part 2

The second fatal incoherence of Boer’s ‘ethics’ is his repeated complaint that until around 2007, the numbers of euthanasia cases was “somewhat steady”, but increased after that. Never mind that the majority of the increase was still in relation to terminal cancer: Boer simply railed at the increased numbers as a major problem.

But, try and explain using ethical principles, why it is appropriate for 2,000 people a year to avail themselves of the euthanasia law, but inappropriate for 4,000 (who all qualify)?

Indeed, the Dutch euthanasia Act makes no mention of numbers: there is no legislated limit on the count of people who might choose to use the law. Rather, it is based on due care criteria, outlining the circumstances of who may qualify, and the process by which they may.

The legislature’s intent remains unchanged and is still being adhered to, though more people, the majority of whom have terminal cancer, are using the law.

It’s astonishing that a Professor of Ethics fails to reflect on the fatal incoherence of his own ‘ethical’ arguments.

What happened?

Boer, who had supported and promoted the Dutch euthanasia model suddenly and incoherently changed his position to vocally opposed in 2014. What happened?

One factor might shed some light. In 2014, Boer was appointed to the endowed professorship of Lindeboom Chair in Ethics in Healthcare at Kampen Theological University.

While Kampen Theological University is a Dutch Reformist Protestant institution and therefore may support assisted dying in “emergency” cases, the Lindeboom Institute, which endows Boer’s eponymous professorship, is less understanding.

The Lindeboom Institute was co-founded by several orthodox Christian institutions and cooperates with the Netherlands Evangelical University which studies science from an creationist Biblical perspective.

The Institute demands “biblically sound medical ethics” along with “Christian norms and values”. You’d be left wondering what that actually means, until you find on its website that the Board’s role is “the protection of people at all stages of life”.

In addition, participating organisations that fund the Lindeboom endowment, like the Dutch Patients Association, Pro Life Health Insurance and the Foundation for Christian Philosophy, are strongly opposed to assisted dying in any form.

It turns out that the authors of that other ‘analysis’ that commits numerous similar scientific offences which generate smoke and mirrors, Jones and Paton, are devout conservative Catholics.

Gosh. What a coincidence.


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Netherlands 'suicide contagion' from assisted dying: Theo Boer's smoke and mirrors


Author(s)

Neil Francis

Journal

Journal of Assisted Dying, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 1–11.

Abstract

Background: Concerns had been raised about the scientific quality of a 2017 article by ethicist Theo Boer in which he theorised that lawful voluntary assisted dying (VAD) would potentially ‘dampen’ suicide rates, but drew the opposite conclusion: the suggestion that VAD cases have caused higher suicide rates.
Methods: A structured, forensic examination of the article was conducted.
Results: Numerous serious shortcomings were found, including (a) profound unfamiliarity with the complexity of suicide; (b) lack of a clear and specific pre-hoc methodology; (c) numerous unsupported speculations; (d) cherry-picked data and casual dismissal of data at odds with the conclusion; (e) a simple correlation interpreted as causation while failing to control for any confounding factors; (f) incoherent, contradictory and misleading statements; and (g) multiple editorial errors.
Conclusions: Boer’s article is poorly conceived and carelessly assembled, revealing unfamiliarity with both the subject matter and with scientific principles. The conclusions drawn are not supported by the article’s methodology or data. The article offers mere smoke and mirrors to conclude that VAD may increase suicide rates, at odds with wider evidence.

Article keywords

voluntary assisted dying, euthanasia, suicide contagion, Werther effect, Netherlands, methodology

Full PDF

Download the full PDF: Download the full article (5.4Mb)

Citation

Francis, N 2019, 'Netherlands "suicide contagion" from assisted dying: Theo Boer's smoke and mirrors', Journal of Assisted Dying, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 1-11.

Download the citation in RIS format: RIS.gif


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The Belgian Euthanasia Commission has released its summary report for 2018

Belgium's Federal Commission for Control and Evaluation of Euthanasia has released a summary report of cases for the 2018 calendar year. Numbers have stabilised, with a tiny 1.8% increase on the figures for the previous year. All cases were found to have met the essential conditions of the Euthanasia Act. Below is an English translation of the report.

Belgium Euthanasia - Figures for the year 2018

By Jan Eyckmans
Posted on 28/02/2019

These figures relate to the registration documents for euthanasia carried out between 1 January 2018 and 31 December 2018 examined by the Commission. A more detailed analysis of euthanasia reported in 2018 will be made in the next biennial report of the Commission (gathering data for 2018 and 2019).

The number of reports received during this period was 2357. The majority were written in Dutch, concerned patients aged 60 to 89 years and slightly more women. Most often, euthanasia took place at home.

The main conditions causing the euthanasia claims were either cancers or a combination of several conditions (polypathologies) that were not likely to improve and that caused more and more serious disabilities up to organ failure. Death of patients was usually expected in the near future. Patients whose death is clearly not expected in the short term suffered mostly from polypathologies, while the death of cancer patients is rarely considered such.

Requests for euthanasia on the basis of mental disorders and behavior remain marginal (2.4% of all euthanasia). Like all euthanasia records, they comply with the legal requirements (patient capable, written request, medical situation without solution, constant suffering, intolerable and unbearable, caused by a serious and incurable condition, application and repeated request).

No euthanasia of unemancipated minors was recorded in 2018.

The Commission considered that all the declarations received met the essential conditions of the law and none were transmitted to the public prosecutor.

Detailed figures

The number of reports received in 2018 was 2357. The number of recorded euthanasia remained stable (only 1.8% increase).

The number of registration documents in French continues to increase (76% NL / 24% FR).

67.1% of the patients were older than 70 years and 41% were over 80 years old. Euthanasia in patients under 40 remains very limited (1.7%). It is mainly patients in the 60, 70, and 80 age groups who request euthanasia (75.8%). The largest group of patients is between 80 and 89 years old (29.9%).

In 2018, no statement regarding the euthanasia of minors was recorded.

The number of euthanasia in the home (46.8%) is still increasing, while those in the hospital are still decreasing (36.1%). The number of euthanasia in nursing homes and nursing homes continues to increase (14.3%). This corresponds to the patient's wish to end his life at home.

In the vast majority of cases (85.4%), the physician estimated that patient deaths were predictable in the near future.

For the majority of patients, several types of physical and psychological suffering (not to be confused with psychiatric conditions) were observed simultaneously (78.7%). These sufferings were always the consequence of one or more serious and incurable conditions.

Less than 1% of euthanasia involved unconscious patients who made an advance declaration.

The conditions causing the euthanasia were mostly tumours (cancers) (61.4%), polypathologies (18.6%), diseases of the nervous system (8.3%), circulatory system diseases. (3.8%), diseases of the respiratory system (2.4%) and mental and behavioural disorders (2.4%).

Press contacts

• Jacqueline Herremans, lawyer
+32 (0) 2 648 75 30
+32 (0) 475 74 40 92
jacqueline.herremans@lallemand-legros.be

• Michèle Morret-Rauïs, oncologist
+32 (0) 475 40 41 22
morret.rauis@gmail.com

Related documents:

 

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The original document in French is available here.


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