Rhetoric: The 'vulnerable'

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Jeanne Smits' completely false statement in LifeSiteNews

Well it didn't take long. Recently I posted a fact-based report card on Dutch euthanasia practice, based on the actual data from the 2015 annual report (and all the earlier reports) of the Dutch Euthanasia Commission. Now, just a few days later, conservative religious opponents have begun publishing completely untrue statements about Dutch euthanasia practice.

Catholic blog LifeSiteNews' 'Paris correspondent' Jeanne Smits has bolted out of the misinformation blocks, assertively and categorically stating in respect of the small increase in number of euthanasia cases from 2014 to 2015, that:

"The rise is mainly due to the increase of euthanasia for demented, elderly people as well as psychiatric patients, two categories that raise even more questions than 'ordinary' euthanasia for untreatable physical pain."

Smits goes on to correctly report that dementia was an underlying factor in 109 of the cases in 2015 (against 81 in 2014) and psychiatric disorders in 56 patients (against 41 in 2014).

The total number of euthanasia cases increased from 5306 in 2014 to 5516 in 2015, an increase of 210 cases. The increase in dementia cases was 28 and in psychiatric disorders was 15. Therefore, underlying dementia accounted for 13% of the increase, and psychiatric disorders 7% of the increase.

Cherry-picking

Smits has cherry-picked just the dementia and psychiatric illness figures and presented them in a way that supports her story arc, painting a bleak picture.

But by no stretch of the imagination does dementia and psychiatric illness account "mainly" for the increase as she categorically states.

What didn't Smits report at all? Cancer: the Netherlands' leading cause of death. In 2015, cancer was the underlying condition in 4000 euthanasia cases, against 3888 in 2014, a rise of 112 cases or 53% of the increase. That compares with dementia at 13% and psychiatric illness at 7% (20% combined), which Smits selectively critiques as a 'sharp rise'.

In no way is Smits' statement true.

No, let's be frank: it's an outright lie. Cancer was the major underlying condition accounting for more than half of the small increase (4%) of cases in 2015.

More evidence refutes the claim

Comparing one years' data with just the preceding years' data can be misleading when the number of observations is low, as it is for dementia and psychiatric illness euthanasia cases. Fortunately, we have data for more than just the one year.

Since 2012 the Euthanasia Commission has consistently published specific figures for dementia and psychiatric illness cases, so we can compare a rise over four years rather than just one. On this basis as a proportion of total 2012 cases, there has been a 17.9% increase in cancer-related cases, a 1.6% increase in dementia cases, and a 1.0% increase in psychiatric illness cases.

Longitudinal data is even more clear than a single year. It unequivocally refutes Smits' silly claim.

Bull is spread

Does Smits' claim matter much? Won't it just slip into oblivion?

No. Michael Haverluck of the conservative Christian paper OneNewsNow has already picked up Smits' article and repeated her claim as gospel. It remains to be seen how many other anti-euthanasia bloggers republish this nonsense.

Unacceptable conduct

In my view, publishing such a categorical yet false statement — even when unintentional — without first properly checking the facts, is unacceptable conduct. The article (and its derivatives) ought to be withdrawn.


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“The vulnerable will be at risk if we legalise assisted dying.”

This silly, nonsensical statement (flapdoodle) is promoted frequently and persistently in opposition to assisted dying law reform. Various forms are advanced not only by lobbyists, commentators, journalists and politicians, but even by judges and professional medical bodies (see the Appendix).

But why is this statement, and ones like it, just so much flapdoodle? The reason is because it’s false and self-serving rhetoric dressed up as a profound or self-evidential truth. Here’s the Full Monty on how this simple deception works.

What’s the argument?

The argument is structured in such a way that an original group (in this case ‘the vulnerable’) is claimed to morph into a new, different group (those ‘at risk’) on the basis of some approved or disapproved action introduced as a change statement (‘legalise assisted dying’). It takes the form of a supposedly consequentialist argument as shown in Figure 1.

vulnerableatriskfig01.jpgFigure 1: A supposedly consequentialist argument.

But the argument's a complete sham.  Why?

What's the sham?

A quick check of the definition of ‘vulnerable’ reveals the real answer. The Oxford dictionary says "at risk". Dictionary.com offers “susceptible”, and Merriam-Webster defines it as “open to harm”. So, the two groups are in fact one and the same cohort as shown in Figure 2.

vulnerableatriskfig02.jpgFigure 2: The ‘original’ and ‘new’ groups are in fact identical.

It is a circular sham—a tautology or rhetorical pretence—to claim that a group defined as at risk, susceptible or open to harm will become at risk, susceptible or open to harm, as a consequence of some argued change statement. The same thing applies to ‘the weak’, who by context are ‘the vulnerable’ or ‘those at risk’.

Through its self-truth, the circular group claim wrongly lends the change statement’s claim a halo of validity, rendering it intuitively (even seductively) but falsely attractive, as shown in Figure 3.

vulnerableatriskfig03.jpgFigure 3: The circular group claim wrongly casts a halo of ‘validity’ on the change statement’s claim.

Principle and examples of the sham

So, in principle, this rhetorical sleight of hand takes the form:

Group A becomes same Group B if dis/approved change.

[            The circular sham            ]     Change statement

The claim about assisted dying can be seen for what it is, a proposal basking in ‘self-proving’ rhetoric:

The vulnerable will be at risk if we legalise assisted dying.”

Let’s make the principle absolutely clear with some further examples:

  1. You want people to reject democracy.

The self-interested will promote their own agenda if we hold so-called ‘democratic’ elections.”

Analysis: the ‘self-interested’ are one and the same people who vigorously ‘promote their own agenda’ and so it proves nothing about democratic elections despite the attractiveness of wanting to minimise self-interest—which is presented here as only possibly negative. Note also the pejorative expression ‘so-called’ and placing ‘democratic’ in quote marks so as to also tarnish the reputation of free and fair elections.

  1. You are making a case to go to war.

Our brave soldiers will be denied valour if we oppose this just war.”

Analysis: ‘bravery’ and ‘valour’ are the same thing, and something we esteem highly, regardless of whether this particular war is waged or not. Note that presenting the war as ‘just’ (i.e. ‘righteous’) compounds the ‘offence’ of denying brave soldiers the chance of valour.

  1. You want to compel people to attend church.

If we allow people to skip church, the damned will be condemned to eternal hell.”

Analysis: by definition, the damned are condemned to eternal hell (assuming hell exists) regardless of whether people attend church or not. Might private prayer or a life of service to others—not just church attendance—help avoid eternal hell?

  1. You want ‘men’s entertainment galleries’ to be banned.

Sexual predators will continue to abuse their prey unless we ban table-top dance bars.”

Analysis: Sexual predators by definition abuse prey whether table-top dance bars exist or not.

How does the sham fool us so easily?

How is it that the ‘proof’ of the circular group reference so easily transfers a halo of validity to the change statement?

It does so by the close and intuitive relationship of the group topic to the change statement topic—in the main case, death, and in the further examples: political system; war; religion; sex. When the group and change statement topics are closely related, the nature of the change statement doesn’t trigger critical examination and we are likely to automatically accept the effect of the change statement as intrinsically true and meaningful, when it’s not.

How do I spot the sham easily?

To test a statement for the circular sham, simply replace the topic-related change statement with an unrelated one, for example:

Sexual predators will continue to abuse their prey unless we put a price on carbon.

Heavens! In order to protect people from sex crimes we must put a price on carbon!

The vulnerable will be at risk if we wear yellow socks on Wednesdays.”

vulnerableatriskfig04.jpgFigure 4: To protect the vulnerable from being at risk, we must outlaw the wearing of yellow socks on Wednesdays.

It becomes immediately obvious, by replacing a related change statement topic with an unrelated one, just how invalid the halo effect is. The jarring topic difference triggers our critical faculties and we easily see through the sham.

What to do when you find the sham

Authentic and healthy community debate about weighty matters deserves better than misleading rhetoric.

If you encounter the flapdoodle of this circular sham, ask those making it to correct their error and advise them that:

“No proof is found by just going round.”

If you get no satisfaction, report the flapdoodle to us and we'll add it to our examples.

 

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Appendix: Real-world examples of assisted dying ‘vulnerable at risk’ flapdoodle

1.   Medical journal headline

Dr Bill Noble (2013). ‘Legalising assisted dying puts vulnerable patients at risk and doctors must speak up.’ British Medical Journal 346: f4062.

2.   Medical association television statement

Dr Gerard McGushin (for the Australian Medical Association) (2013), Channel 10 TV ‘The Project’, 16-Oct — ”Anyone who’s weak and vulnerable in our society will be at risk [from legalised assisted dying].”

3.   Published book statement

Prof. Margaret Somerville (2014), ‘Death Talk: The case against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide’, 2nd Ed., McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal — “… the community, especially its vulnerable memberslegalized euthanasia …  could place even their continued existence at risk” (Preface, p. 6 of 38, Kobo edition).

4.   Supreme Court (Canada) determination

Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), [1993] 3 SCR 519, “… persons who may be vulnerable to the influence of othersmay find themselves at risk at the hand of others[in the intentional termination of life]”, p. 558.

5.   Magazine article

Bill Muehlenberg (2008), Quadrant Online, 3-Sep, https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/bill-muehlenberg/2008/09/some-objections-to-legalised-euthanasia/ (viewed 28-May-2014), “The most vulnerable will be at riskwith legalised euthanasia”.

6.   Legislator’s speech in Parliament

Rev. Hon. Dr Gordon Moyes (2003), Speech by the Rev. Hon. Dr Gordon Moyes AC, MLC in the NSW Legislative Council Chamber on The Voluntary Euthanasia Trial (Referendum) Bill 2003, “The most vulnerable will be at risk[from] voluntary euthanasia”.

7.   British Medical Association Policy Statement on Assisted Dying

British Medical Association (2014), What is current BMA policy on assisted dying?, https://www.bma.org.uk/advice-and-support/ethics/end-of-life/the-bmas-position-on-physician-assisted-dying  (viewed 28-May-2014), “Permitting assisted dying for some could put vulnerable people at risk”.

8.   Newspaper quotes cleric

Rev. Dr Brendan McCarthy (2012), Assisted suicide comment: euthanasia puts the vulnerable at risk, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/9478399/Assisted-suicide-comment-euthanasia-puts-the-vulnerable-at-risk.html (viewed 28-May-2014).

9.   Anti-euthanasia campaign website

Alex Schadenberg (2013), Assisted dying law would bring risks for the vulnerable, http://alexschadenberg.blogspot.com.au/2013/11/assisted-dying-law-would-bring-risks.html (viewed 28-May-2014).

10. Anti-euthanasia blog

Paul Russell (2012), Euthanasia: Vigilance needed to protect the vulnerable, Newsweekly, https://ncc.org.au/uncategorized/5226-euthanasia-vigilance-needed-to-protect-the-vulnerable/ (viewed 28-May-2014) — “…the whole question of vulnerable patients at risk…”. [only the affirmative is argued]

11. Anti-euthanasia campaign website

Euthanasia Prevention Coalition [now the Patients Rights Council] (2007), ‘Turning the Tide’ DVD has sold more than 1000 copies, Newsletter October 2007 — “…the question of whether euthanasia puts vulnerable patients at risk…”. [only the affirmative is argued]

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"The vulnerable will be at risk if we legalise assisted dying."

This silly, nonsensical argument (flapdoodle) is promoted frequently and persistently in opposition to assisted dying law reform. Various forms are advanced not only by lobbyists, commentators, journalists and politicians, but even by judges and professional medical bodies (see examples).

But the statements are flapdoodle because they use circular rhetoric dressed up as a profound or self-evidential truth to fabricate a case for or against change.

The fabrication is to present ‘the vulnerable’ and people ‘at risk’ as different groups. They aren’t. The Oxford English dictionary defines ‘the vulnerable’ as “at risk”, and Merriam-Webster agrees: “open to harm”.

Therefore it’s a circular sham to argue that a group becomes itself on the basis of some arbitrary change. We could equally say:

“The vulnerable will be at risk if we wear yellow socks on Wednesdays.

Indeed, if you come across an example of this circular sham, ask the author to correct it because:

“No case is made when a circle is laid.

If they don't, let us know!

 

Examples

  1. Magazine article: Bill Muehlenberg (2008), Quadrant Online, 3-Sep, https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/bill-muehlenberg/2008/09/some-objections-to-legalised-euthanasia/ (viewed 28-May-2014), “The most vulnerable will be at risk … with legalised euthanasia”.
     
  2. Anti-euthanasia campaign website: Alex Schadenberg (2013), Assisted dying law would bring risks for the vulnerable, http://alexschadenberg.blogspot.com.au/2013/11/assisted-dying-law-would-bring-risks.html (viewed 28-May-2014).
     
  3. Legislator’s speech in Parliament: Rev. Hon. Dr Gordon Moyes (2003), Speech by the Rev. Hon. Dr Gordon Moyes AC, MLC in the NSW Legislative Council Chamber on The Voluntary Euthanasia Trial (Referendum) Bill 2003, “The most vulnerable will be at risk … [from] voluntary euthanasia”.
     
  4. Professional medical body statement: British Medical Association (2014), What is current BMA policy on assisted dying?, https://www.bma.org.uk/advice-and-support/ethics/end-of-life/the-bmas-position-on-physician-assisted-dying  (viewed 28-May-2014), “Permitting assisted dying for some could put vulnerable people at risk”.
     
  5. Supreme Court (Canada) determination: Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), [1993] 3 SCR 519, “… persons who may be vulnerable to the influence of others … may find themselves at risk at the hand of others … [in the intentional termination of life]”, p. 558.

 

Want a forensic analysis of the circular sham and how it so easily works to fool us? Check out the Full Monty here...

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The Hon. Bob Such's Ending Life With Dignity Bill 2013, before the South Australian Parliament, contains a strong compliment of safeguards, as Neil Francis explains in this video. The refusal of life-saving treatment, to which Australians are entitled but with the same direct and foreseeable consequence as doctor-assisted dying requests, have practically none of these safeguards, yet there has been NO avalanche of inappropriate persuasion to refuse life-saving medical treatment, as the so-called "slippery slope" hypothesis would have us believe.

This is the third of three videos sent to South Australian MPs in 2013.

Visit the YouTube page.

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Opponents of assisted dying law reform often invoke fictional slippery slopes as objections to law reform. In this video, Neil Francis gives three examples of supposed slippery slopes argued by opponents, explains why they are fictional, and shares the perspectives of several recognised experts from the USA state of Oregon about their Death With Dignity law which has been in effect since 1997. Three long-time Oregonian Death With Dignity Act opponents also admit there's no cause-and-effect relationship established between law reform and supposed slippery slopes.

This is the second of three videos sent to South Australian MPs in 2013.

Visit the YouTube page.

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