Fudge

To use unscientific analysis methods or inappropriately selective data to support an argument or conclusion, where valid scientific analysis methods or use of available full data would support different conclusions.

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Palliative care specialist advances incoherent reasons to oppose VAD.

Director of Palliative Care at Cabrini Health, Associate Professor Natasha Michael, yesterday published an opinion piece in The Age newspaper. In it, she rails against Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying (VAD) Act which comes into effect on 19th June. Instead she articulates an arrogant and prescriptive view of what Australians should and shouldn’t be allowed, consistent with Catholic dogma, as I uncover.

Michael, along with fellow devout Catholic Dr Stephen Parnis, ‘tirelessly’ opposed the introduction of Victoria’s VAD law. They continue to actively oppose it, and her opinion piece reveals her spurious ‘reasoning’.

The Catholic Healthcare brick wall

More than half of all palliative care services in Australia are delivered through Catholic institutions, of which Cabrini Health is one arm. These institutions have determined that VAD will not be available in any of their facilities or via any of their services, even if the individual patient and doctor are supportive.

This arbitrarily limits access to lawful choice by citizens.

Confected ‘institutional conscience’

I say ‘arbitrarily’ because ‘institutional conscience’ is a confection: it doesn’t really exist. Only real persons have conscience. The fabricated dictates of any institution — presented as ‘moral rules’ — extinguish the actual real conscience of those who exist within it: at least, those whose conscience differs.

The upshot is that a specific cohort of religious, celibate men in Rome dictate whether Australian citizens can or can’t obtain lawful healthcare services from half the service providers.

So let’s examine what the institutional ‘conscience’ has to say.

Disgraceful framing in headline

We can’t let voluntary assisted dying negate our commitment to the ill”, Michael’s article headline screams.

Firstly, VAD is not available to the “ill”. It’s available only to those with terminal illness and intolerable suffering, according to 68 criteria.

Secondly, Michael invokes a false dichotomy of “negating a commitment”. VAD does not “negate a commitment”. Indeed, to fail to hear and respect a persistent, fully informed and tested request for VAD that meets all the criteria is to negate palliative care’s commitment to honour the patient’s deeply held values, beliefs and decisions.

Medical-coloured glasses

The introduction of voluntary assisted dying legislation in Victoria on June 19 will remind us of the occasional failure of medicine,” Michael says.

That’s it. The patient’s death is a failure of medicine, as though a person’s death is a medical event rather than a deeply human and private one of personhood.

It also flags the common but immature medical assumption that “death = failure”. Death is inevitable, not a “failure”. The key question about death for people with terminal illness is “how”, and Michael presumes to prescribe the “how”: being receptacles for interventions that she and her colleagues provide.

Let’s be clear. Many people are helped enormously by palliative care. That’s a great credit to the discipline’s specialists.

However, as Palliative Care Australia acknowledges, even the best palliative care can’t relieve all excruciating, debilitating and humiliating refractory symptoms.

Michael’s answer to this sometimes “failure” of medical interventions? Deliver more interventions, whether the patient considers them consistent with his own values, beliefs and circumstances or not.

They’re very heavily medical-coloured glasses indeed.

Three faux ‘threats’

Michael then invokes three faux ‘threats’ supposedly caused by lawful VAD in Victoria.

Faux threat 1: “Validating suicide as an acceptable choice”.

Michael exposes her own bias here: that all self-hastening of deaths are the same — that there is no meaningful difference between a dying person who is fully informed and whose rational choice for a peaceful assisted death has been extensively tested, with the violent and impulsive action of a person suffering a temporary, resolvable personal crisis, be it mental illness, substance abuse, intimate relationship breakdown or other circumstance.

Michael is pretty much on her own here. Most Australian doctors make a clear distinction between these very different contexts.

Faux threat 2: “accepting substandard medical care by supporting the lack of rigour in defining [VAD] eligibility”.

Michael overlooks that there is a major lack of rigour in existing, lawful end-of-life choices.

There are no statutory requirements for a patient to refuse medical treatment, even if the treatment would be life-saving.

There are no statutory requirements for the voluntary refusal of food and fluids in order to die, either.

More critically, despite terminal sedation being a common end-of-life medical practice but ethically problematic (including that it may hasten death and may not alleviate intractable symptoms), not only is there no statutory requirement for its practice, but neither the Australian Medical Association nor Palliative Care Australia have official guidelines on its practice.

Thus, in railing against the staggering 68 standards of practice prescribed in Victoria’s VAD law — vastly more than any other in the world — as a “lack of rigour”, Michael makes no mention of three other major life-end choices that have no such standards, including her own discipline’s terminal sedation.

Doctor, heal thyself (and thine own systems).

Faux threat 3: “introducing into the healthcare curriculum the intentional ending of life as acceptable medical treatment”

Michael creates a misleading impression here. By referring to ‘curriculum’ you might think that all medical students would have to undergo training on how to end lives, or be ‘indoctrinated’ to accept VAD. That is not true.

To be able to prescribe lethal medication under Victoria’s legislation, the doctor must undergo additional training in relation to that procedure. Doctors will only receive the training if they self-nominate for it: it’s not compulsory.

If, by ‘curriculum’ Michael means only “VAD might be discussed” in medical school, then she would have to articulate why termination of pregnancy (to which the Catholic church objects) should not be discussed, either. Nor the transfusion of blood, since many Jehovah’s Witnesses object to the procedure.

Own failure in palliative care principles

Nowhere in her opinion piece does Michael acknowledge that the patient may deeply hold values and beliefs that validly favour VAD. Thus, Michael offends the first principle of palliative care which is to make the patient the centre of care and to honour as much as possible the patient’s values, beliefs, attitudes and wishes.

Indeed, in her conclusion, Michael states that palliative care “remains committed to the ongoing accompaniment of our patients. Not abandoning them” and which is “the only plausible method of compassion and care.”

This surely is the most egregious and arrogant self-interest of all: patients must subject themselves to being accompanied by palliative care staff and their ‘interventions’ whether they want more or not.

On the contrary, to fail to hear and respect a genuine, informed and persistent request for a peaceful hastened death from a dying patient for whom this accords most firmly with his deeply held values and beliefs, is to abandon the patient.

Conclusion

Michael is of course entitled to her personal stance, and I celebrate her right to hold her views: for herself.

However, her ‘requirement’ that all Victorians be denied access to an option that four out of five believe to be moral — and instead subject themselves to interventions administered by Michael and her colleagues — reveals an unattractive arrogance.

It’s a shame that Catholic bioethics doesn’t teach more about reflection, especially as to whether one’s own beliefs ought to dictate and limit the choices of others with equally firmly held, though different, values.

In the meantime, Victorians are pawns to the tyranny of the Vatican as to whether there is a local healthcare facility that will hear and examine their request for a peaceful, assisted death in the face of terminal illness.

In many places, there won’t be.


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Terminal sedation is not an argument against assisted dying law reform.

Opponents of assisted dying often claim that the appropriate response to refractory symptoms at end of life is terminal sedation — also known as palliative sedation or continuous deep sedation.e.g. 1 Terminal sedation is the administration of sedatives so as to render the patient unconscious until death. Thus, the patient’s active experience of suffering is removed, even if the underlying causes of the suffering are not.

Terminal sedation can help in some cases of end-of-life suffering, but it remains a problematic practice — and not a substitute for lawful assisted dying — for eight broad reasons.

1. Directly and foreseeably causing death

Unless the patient is already likely to die of her illness within a few days, it is the withholding of artificial nutrition and hydration during terminal sedation that causes the patient’s death. Lack of fluids causes circulatory collapse and organ failure within 14 days; less if the patient is frail.

In addition, at least one study has found that the terminal sedation medication itself can cause depression of respiration and/or circulation, directly resulting in death in 3.9% of cases.2 Another study purporting to show no survival difference in patients given terminal sedation3 has been exposed as deeply scientifically flawed.4

While opponents of assisted dying usually claim that the intention of terminal sedation is the relief of symptoms and not the hastening of death (their fundamental objection to assisted dying), in practice, terminal sedation can directly and foreseeably cause death.

2. Inapplicable prior to 2–14 days before death

A standard of practice in terminal sedation in many jurisdictions is that it should be used to address refractory symptoms only if the patient’s death is anticipated within hours or days, and in any case less than 14 days.5

However, intolerable and intractable symptoms often occur much earlier, for example amongst those with metastatic cancer where death is still weeks off, or those with a progressive degenerative neurological condition such as motor neuron disease, who may have several months to live.

Thus, terminal sedation is not a practical solution to intractable symptoms in many cases.

3. It doesn’t always help

Palliative Care Australia’s acknowledgement that even best practice can’t always alleviate intolerable suffering at end of life6 is confirmed by a study into terminal sedation practice which found that, in contrast to popular belief that it alleviates (the patients’ conscious awareness of) all suffering, it was ineffective in 17% of cases.7

4. It may violate the patient’s value system

Most calls for terminal sedation as “the answer” to assisted dying law reform focus on the views of the doctor, for whom this is another familiar “intervention”. However, terminal sedation may be unacceptable to the patient.

A patient may deeply believe that being forced to dehydrate to death — unconscious in a bed for a couple of weeks — to be an anathema to her most deeply-held values and sense of self as an active participant in her own life trajectory. This patient may profoundly prefer another route whose equally caused and foreseeable consequence is death: voluntary assisted dying, an option that gives her the chance to say goodbye to loved ones at a time of her own choosing.

5. It extinguishes the patient’s decisional capacity

Rendering the patient unconscious extinguishes her decision-making capacity. The patient can no longer participate in her own treatment decisions unless terminal sedation is ceased, she regains consciousness and becomes aware of her intolerable suffering once more.

6. Doctors’ intention not always clear-cut

When a doctor administers terminal sedation to a patient, the doctor’s intention is not always clear-cut. The doctor may intend to alleviate the patient’s suffering and/or intend to hasten death.

The administration of a single large bolus of sedatives is generally indicative of an intention to hasten death, in which case the doctor in likely to be investigated and prosecuted. However, the administration of increasing doses of sedatives is less clear: significantly increasing titrations of sedatives may be necessary to alleviate intractable symptoms, or they may be an intention to hasten death.

7. Risk of coercion

There is a conceptual risk that greedy relatives, service providers who need the patient’s bed, and others, might inappropriately persuade the patient to opt for a death hastened by terminal sedation, a similar theoretical risk to that in assisted dying.

However, unlike assisted dying which under statutory law is an express, fully informed, independently examined and documented desire and intention to hasten death, there are no statutory requirements in Australia regarding testing of desire, informedness, intention or possible coercion in terminal sedation. This is incoherent.

8. Worse experiences for the bereaved

Studies have found a significant minority of relatives of patients receiving terminal sedation are quite distressed by the experience. Problems causing distress include concern about the patient’s welfare and terminal sedation’s failure to address symptoms, burden of responsibility for making the decision, feeling unprepared for changes in the patient’s condition, short time to the patient’s death and whether terminal sedation had contributed to it, feeling that healthcare workers were insufficiently compassionate, and wondering if another approach would have been better.e.g. 8,9 Periods of longer terminal sedation may be more distressing than shorter periods.10

In contrast, an Oregon study found that the bereaved from assisted deaths appreciate the opportunity to say goodbye, to know that the choice was the deceased’s wish, that the deceased avoided prolonged suffering, that the choice was legal, and they were able to plan and prepare for the death.11

Another Oregon study found that the mental health outcomes of bereaved from assisted deaths were no different from the bereaved from natural deaths.12 Bereaved from assisted deaths were more likely to believe that the dying person’s wishes had been honoured and were less likely to have regrets about the death.

A Swiss study found the rate of complicated grief after assisted death was comparable to the general Swiss population,13[^] while a Dutch study found bereavement coping in cancer was better after assisted death than after non-assisted death.14

Incoherent professional association standards

Neither the Australian Medical Association nor Palliative Care Australia have guidelines for doctors for the practice of terminal sedation.[*] Indeed, even Palliative Care Australia’s carefully reviewed and updated national standards released in late 2018 don’t mention sedation at all.15

In contrast, in countries where assisted dying is now lawful, clear and specific frameworks have been developed to guide the practice of terminal sedation: in the Netherlands,16 Canada,17 and Belgium.18 This deliberative development and implementation points to continued improvement in (not deterioration of) professional medical practice across the board when assisted dying is legal.

Given the profound issues in terminal sedation as in voluntary assisted dying, the failure of the peak Australian medical associations to publish guidelines on terminal sedation, while opposing assisted dying for perceived issues in its implementation, is incoherent and indefensible.

Summary

Palliative and medical care can never address all profound suffering at the end of life, regardless of funding or organisation: some kinds of suffering have no relevant or effective medical interventions, and even terminal sedation may be inapplicable or ineffective. To claim that palliative care is always the answer is a “monstrous arrogance19 and “represents the last vestiges of [medical] paternalism”.20

 

"It is clear that improving palliative care will not remove the need for legalizing assisted dying, and that legalizing assisted dying need not harm palliative care.”21

 

While terminal (palliative) sedation may help a minority of patients, it's a problematic practice that is often not a practical solution to refractory symptoms at end of life.

Terminal sedation is not a substitute for lawful assisted dying choice.


[^]     Slightly elevated levels of PTSD were found amongst the bereaved (compared to the general population), but it was not established whether this would have been different from the trauma of experiencing continued suffering and deterioration or different from PTSD rates of those who had recently lost a loved one by any other means, including terminal sedation.

[*]     Revealed through direct correspondence between myself and the two associations.

 

References

  1. Somerville, M 2009, 'We can always relieve pain', Ottawa Citizen, (24 Jul).
  2. Morita, T, Chinone, Y, Ikenaga, M, Miyoshi, M, Nakaho, T, Nishitateno, K, Sakonji, M, Shima, Y, Suenaga, K, Takigawa, C, Kohara, H, Tani, K, Kawamura, Y, Matsubara, T, Watanabe, A, Yagi, Y, Sasaki, T, Higuchi, A, Kimura, H, Abo, H, Ozawa, T, Kizawa, Y, Uchitomi, Y, Japan Pain, PMR & Psycho-Oncology Study, G 2005, 'Efficacy and safety of palliative sedation therapy: a multicenter, prospective, observational study conducted on specialized palliative care units in Japan', J Pain Symptom Manage, 30(4), pp. 320-8.
  3. Maltoni, M, Pittureri, C, Scarpi, E, Piccinini, L, Martini, F, Turci, P, Montanari, L, Nanni, O & Amadori, D 2009, 'Palliative sedation therapy does not hasten death: results from a prospective multicenter study', Ann Oncol, 20(7), pp. 1163-9.
  4. Francis, N 2016, How bad research fuels dodgy claims, DyingForChoice.com, viewed 11 Mar 2016, http://www.dyingforchoice.com/f-files/how-bad-research-fuels-dodgy-claims.
  5. Twycross, R 2019, 'Reflections on palliative sedation', Palliative care, 12, pp. 1-16.
  6. Palliative Care Australia 2006, Policy statement on voluntary euthanasia, Canberra, pp. 2.
  7. Davis, MP 2009, 'Does palliative sedation always relieve symptoms?', Journal of Palliative Medicine, 12(10), pp. 875-877.
  8. Morita, T, Ikenaga, M, Adachi, I, Narabayashi, I, Kizawa, Y, Honke, Y, Kohara, H, Mukaiyama, T, Akechi, T & Uchitomi, Y 2004, 'Family experience with palliative sedation therapy for terminally ill cancer patients', Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 28(6), pp. 557-565.
  9. Bruinsma, SM, Brown, J, van der Heide, A, Deliens, L, Anquinet, L, Payne, SA, Seymour, JE, Rietjens, JAC & on behalf of, U 2014, 'Making sense of continuous sedation in end-of-life care for cancer patients: an interview study with bereaved relatives in three European countries', Supportive Care in Cancer, 22(12), pp. 3243-3252.
  10. van Dooren, S, van Veluw, HT, van Zuylen, L, Rietjens, JA, Passchier, J & van der Rijt, CC 2009, 'Exploration of concerns of relatives during continuous palliative sedation of their family members with cancer', J Pain Symptom Manage, 38(3), pp. 452-459.
  11. Srinivasan, EG 2009, Bereavement experiences following a death under Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, Human Development and Family Studies, Oregon State University, pp. 127.
  12. Ganzini, L, Goy, ER, Dobscha, SK & Prigerson, H 2009, 'Mental health outcomes of family members of Oregonians who request physician aid in dying', J Pain Symptom Manage, 38(6), pp. 807-15.
  13. Wagner, B, Müller, J & Maercker, A 2012, 'Death by request in Switzerland: Posttraumatic stress disorder and complicated grief after witnessing assisted suicide', European Psychiatry, 27(7), pp. 542-546.
  14. Swarte, NB, van der Lee, ML, van der Bom, JG, van den Bout, J & Heintz, AP 2003, 'Effects of euthanasia on the bereaved family and friends: a cross sectional study', British Medical Journal, 327(7408), pp. 189-192.
  15. Palliative Care Australia 2018, National Palliative Care Standards, Griffith ACT, pp. 44.
  16. Verkerk, M, van Wijlick, E, Legemaate, J & de Graeff, A 2007, 'A national guideline for palliative sedation in the Netherlands', J Pain Symptom Manage, 34(6), pp. 666-70.
  17. Dean, MM, Cellarius, V, Henry, B, Oneschuk, D & Librach, LS 2012, 'Framework for continuous palliative sedation therapy in Canada', J Palliat Med, 15(8), pp. 870-9.
  18. Broeckaert, B, Mullie, A, Gielen, J, Desmet, M, Declerck, D, Vanden Berghe, P & FPZV Ethics Steering Group 2012, Palliative sedation guidelines, Federatie Palliatieve Zorg Vlaanderen, viewed 18 Sep 2015, http://www.pallialine.be/template.asp?f=rl_palliatieve_sedatie.htm.
  19. Hain, RDW 2014, 'Euthanasia: 10 myths', Archives of Disease in Childhood, 99(9), pp. 798-799.
  20. Horne, DC 2014, 'Re: Why the Assisted Dying Bill should become law in England and Wales', BMJ, 349, p. g4349/rr/759847.
  21. Downar, J, Boisvert, M & Smith, D 2014, 'Re: Why the Assisted Dying Bill should become law in England and Wales [response]', BMJ, 349, p. g4349/rr/760260.
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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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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 Victorian parliament is debating the Government's Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating once famously branded the Senate “unrepresentative swill” for obstructing his legislative agenda. Today, the question of how representative our political masters are remains moot.

Major community support for VAD

Take voluntary assisted dying (VAD) for example. Poll after poll demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of Australians want this additional choice for people in extremis at the end of life. The impeccable Australian Election Survey (AES) conducted by Australian National University scholars last year confirmed that 77% of Australians want VAD reform, with 13% undecided and just 10% opposed.

Strong support (43%) is ten times greater than strong opposition (4%), and support is high across the political spectrum: amongst minor/independent (69%), Coalition (77%), Labor (80%) and Greens (87%) voters. Public support has been in the majority for more than four decades.

Political support missing in action

But since the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in 1996, none of the many VAD Bills before various state parliaments has passed. And the Northern Territory’s Act was torn down by the federal parliament just eight months after coming into effect.

A 2008 university study of federal MP voting opportunities found 100% of Greens, 55% of Labor, and a paltry 17% of Coalition MPs voting in favour of VAD.

New analysis

Now, a new analysis of the ten state VAD Bills since 2000 where final divisions were called, offers further insights. It found 100% of Greens MP voting opportunities were in favour, along with 51% of Labor, 29% of minor party and independent, and a similarly paltry 17% of Coalition MPs. Excluding South Australia, whose parliament has debated the greatest number of VAD Bills, the Coalition support rate was just 9%.

Overall, while state Labor MP votes fell 29% short of Labor voter attitudes, Coalition MP votes fell an astonishing 60% short of Coalition voter attitudes. At the state level, Coalition MPs had the most voting opportunities — nearly half (48%). No wonder passing VAD Bills is challenging.

It begs the question, how is it that our legislative representatives fail to reflect clear public majority views on matters of conscience for so long?

Hidden reasons behind MP opposition

Obviously, lobbying on both sides of the conversation in part informs MPs’ views, but there are several more persuasive factors.

For a start, there’s a “truism” held by many MPs that their vote in favour of a VAD Bill would lose them more votes at a general election than would a vote against the Bill. However, the opposite has been demonstrated in multiple studies.

Further, I’ve shown before that opposition to VAD is largely religious.  A university study has also found that those who are more religious and who are politically engaged tend to hold very conservative views. So while there are religious MPs on both sides of politics, Coalition MPs are naturally more inclined to hold much more conservative views.

But that doesn’t fully explain the massive 60% representation gap on the Coalition side, either.

In good conscience?

A key factor lies in the seemingly reassuring principle of the “conscience vote.” The major parties have announced that their members are accorded a conscience vote (also known as a “free vote”) on the VAD Bill. That simply means that there’s no official published party policy on the matter and party members may vote freely on the basis of their own conscience.

There are two significant issues with this state of affairs.

The first is that the member may refer exclusively to their own conscience. But what if the MP’s conscience is at odds with the electorate’s? For my home state of Victoria, the 2016 AES study found 79% of the community in favour of VAD. There are 88 members of the Victorian parliament lower house, and just 40 members in the upper house. Therefore, it’s possible for as few as just 20 Victorian MPs to vote “no” in order to extinguish the will of 3.2 million Victorians (79% of 4.05 million Victorian voters).

If that weren’t enough, the second issue is that the right to ‘conscience’ is granted only in respect of the Bill itself, not on procedural matters about the Bill. It can make a huge difference.

How the parry works

Here’s what happened in 2008 when Victorian Greens MP Colleen Hartland’s VAD Bill was before the Legislative Council. MPs were afforded a conscience vote, and many of them had said they were supportive of VAD in general, but couldn’t support Hartland’s Bill in its current form. (That’s also a common ruse of MPs who in reality oppose the reform in principle but wish to appear ‘open minded’.)

When the final vote on Hartland’s Bill was lost, then Greens MP Greg Barber immediately moved a motion to refer the Bill to a parliamentary committee so that it could be improved to MPs’ satisfaction. Neither Labor nor Coalition parties afforded their members a conscience vote on this procedural matter, instead directing MPs to vote against such motions. The referral, which may have resulted in Victorians having wider end-of-life choices years ago, was cynically buried.

Most voters remain unaware of the shenanigans played in the corridors of power to achieve such results.

Australia’s special political conservatism

They’re not the only shenanigans, though. Another university study comparing federal MP conscience voting patterns in the UK, New Zealand and Australia found Australia to be different, accounting for why the UK and NZ have legalised marriage equality, while Australia hasn’t.

Firstly, the centre-left in Australia has a larger proportion of Catholic members than in the UK and NZ, accounting for some of the shortfall in Labor representation of progressive views.

Secondly, those amongst Coalition ranks, but with more liberal social consciences, had been lashed by Coalition party whips to vote against progressive reform. So while there was a public display of fairness and neutrality, the reality was quite different.

Borne out in state parliaments

These findings are replicated in Australian state parliament votes too, with Coalition MPs rarely if ever voting in favour of progressive social reform. Coalition MP votes on VAD including and since Hartland’s legislative attempt in 2008 are telling: in Victoria 2008 10:5 against, in Tasmania 2009 6:0 against; in Western Australia 2010 19:1 against; in NSW 2013 10:0 against; in South Australia 2016 14:7 against and in Tasmania 2017 13:1 against.

Rather than reflect 77% Coalition voter support for VAD, Coalition MP voting patterns reflect the highly negative stance of party leaders, whipped through the parliamentary party membership. For example, then WA Premier Mr Colin Barnett made it clear he thought assisted dying was “government-sanctioned killing”. Tasmanian coalition leader Mr Will Hodgman said that “protection for [vulnerable] people cannot be guaranteed.” Then-NSW Premier Mr Barry O’Farrell declared himself “strongly opposed”.

Back to Victoria’s Bill under debate

The situation in Victoria is looking somewhat more positive, with Premier Mr Daniel Andrews and many in his Cabinet publicly supporting reform. A lengthy, detailed, professional and well-resourced process has informed the crafting of the Bill.

However, opposition leader and would-be Premier Mr Matthew Guy has stated his resolute opposition to it and that he intends to vote “no”. That would mean he is quite comfortable for his own personal view to extinguish the contrary views also held in good conscience by 34,626 of the 43,831 voters in his own electorate of Bulleen, and 3.20 million of Victoria’s 4.05 million voters. (Electorate numbers as at 10 October 2017.)

An obvious solution

There’s an obvious solution for MPs whose own consciences disallow them from reflecting the overwhelming majority conscience of the electorate.

They could consider abstaining — simply absenting themselves from the chamber during the division. That would keep their own consciences intact while allowing the electorate’s conscience to be reflected.

I’m a constituent of Mr Guy’s. Over a period of months I made six robust attempts to meet with him to discuss these matters, especially the covert whip arrangements and the consideration of abstention. I can be persuasive in obtaining appointments, but my best efforts proved wholly unfruitful.

As I said to Mr Guy’s private assistant after the last failed attempt, voters could be forgiven for believing he’s more interested in meeting allegedly shady characters in fancy Brighton restaurants, than meeting with his own constituents.

Victorians are watching the parliamentary VAD debate. We’re taking notes that will inform our votes at the state election late next year.

Indications are at present there’s a good chance that Victorian MPs won’t be “unrepresentative swill”.


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The latest religious right 'think tank' lobby group, the Institute for Civil Society.

I challenge the latest religious right commentators opposing Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill to skip the flip-flopping and engage constructively.

They’re at it again. This time it’s the religious right’s latest ‘think tank’ front group, the impressively-named Institute for Civil Society. Sounds grand, doesn’t it?

But if you look into their lot in life, it’s to protect ‘religious freedoms.’ By that, they mean the right to lawfully discriminate against others of whom they disapprove, while at the same time arguing that they not be discriminated against.

Mark Sneddon and Sharon Rodrick of the ‘Institute’ published an opinion piece in Fairfax Media today.

In it, they slam the Victorian Government’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, which was introduced into the Parliament recently.

They criticize the Bill for inadequate safeguards. (There are no fewer than 68 of them.)

The logical fallacy

They level several criticisms at the Bill to say it's not 'safe'. But they could have advanced any criticism of the Bill to claim, as they do, that “the vulnerable will be at risk” — a logical fallacy as I’ve pointed out before. The "vulnerable will be at risk", by circular definition, if the Bill is printed in black ink (as it is) instead of purple, but they didn't complain about the colour of the ink.

The flip-flop

The point is, they flip-flop because they’re remarkably inconsistent in their position. At the same time as pointing out supposed flaws in the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, demanding a much higher standard of proof about a number of things, they completely fail in their opinion piece to even mention — let alone demand the same level of safeguards for — an already-legal and equivalent hypothetical risk for the “vulnerable.”

Equivalent hypothetical risk in operation for nearly 30 years

In Victoria, patients have an inalienable right to refuse any and all medical treatment. No reason need be given, even if the treatment is life-saving. The Medical Treatment Act 1998, currently in force, has several safeguards to protect against coercion or undue influence. In Section 5(1), one doctor and “another person” (who can be anybody) must be satisfied that:

  • “the patient has clearly expressed or indicated a decision”; and
  • “the patient’s decision is made voluntarily and without inducement or compulsion”; and
  • “the patient has been informed” about their condition and “has appeared to understand that information”; and
  • “the patient is of sound mind and has attained the age of 18 years.”
     

They’re all the legislated safeguards for the refusal of life-saving medical treatment.

And how many cases of undue influence have been prosecuted in Victoria over the nearly 30 years the Medical Treatment Act 1998 has been in effect? Precisely none. Not one.

So much for Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick’s avaricious relatives lurking at every bedside.

A new, equivalent hypothetical risk

The Medical Treatment Planning and Decisions Act 2016, which will come into force in March next year and which extinguishes the Medical Treatment Act 1998 at that time, also contains several similar safeguards for the refusal of life-saving medical treatment.

In witnessing an Advance Care Directive (Section 17), the two signatories, only one of whom must be a medical doctor, must certify that:

  • the person “appeared to have decision-making capacity” in relation to the documented decisions; and
  • the person “appeared to understand the nature and effect of each statement”; and
  • “the person appeared to freely and voluntarily sign the document”; and
  • “the person signed the document in the presence of the two witnesses”; and
  • “the witness is not an appointed medical treatment decision maker for the person.”*
     

In Section 52 of the Act, a health practitioner is forbidden to administer medical treatment if they are aware the patient has refused it, however (lawfully) refused.

This Act was passed in the term of the current Parliament: that is, by the same State MPs who are now considering the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill.

There was no great fracas over the sensible safeguards spelled out in the new Medical Treatment Planning and Decisions Act. There was no onslaught of “crisis!” op-ed screeds published in newspapers. There were no countless hours of talking heads tut-tutting and painting doomsday scenarios.

It was passed by the Parliament and accepted by the people as striking the right balance.

No safeguards at all in many cases

And that’s it: the sum-total of safeguards to refuse life-saving medical treatment in Victoria. However, if the patient refuses medical treatment verbally, there are no mandated safeguards at all in either old or new Act, because the statutory safeguards apply only to refusal given in writing.

Yet despite all this, Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick rail against safeguards against coercion and elder abuse only in regard to the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, in which the safeguards are of a significantly higher calibre, with, for example, mandatory multiple doctor opinions, documentation trail, multiple requests, no go-ahead until approval by an external authority, notifications of numerous kinds, oversight by a specially-established panel, and so on.

It’s obvious what a flip-flop Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick’s demands are in respect of decisions that will foreseably result in death.

Another embarrassing flip-flop

Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick particularly also complain at length at the supposedly ‘lax’ definition of decision-making capacity in the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill.

That’s a major and embarrassing flip-flop. Here’s why.

The section of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill that stipulates those requirements (Section 4) is the same section number 4 that governs the right to refuse of life-saving medical treatment in the Medical Treatment Planning and Decisions Act 2016. Only a few words have been changed to alter the context from refusal of treatment to consideration of assisted dying. Otherwise, the Sections are identical.

Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick don't point this out in their opinion piece. Indeed, I was unable to find online any evidence that they had published any complaint about the provisions when the Medical Treatment Planning and Decisions Act was in debate, nor since. If they have, I’d be happy for them to point it out.

Is it all a strategic ruse, anyhow?

It’s pertinent to ask if the objections are a ruse anyhow, because, as Andrew Denton has rightly pointed out, a key opponent strategy is not to give an outright “no” to assisted dying Bills, but to say only “not this Bill” and create an atmosphere of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) so that it is defeated.

A typical ruse example

By way of example, I’ve published an account of how Victorian MP Daniel Mulino published outrageous misinformation about assisted dying. As a result, we had an extended conversation, during which he acknowledged that he had indeed published misinformation. At the end of the conversation I asked if he could support the Government’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill. (He’s a member of said Government.)

No, it’s too liberal, he said, pointing to Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, now in force for nearly 20 years, as a more conservative approach. So I asked him if he would support a Bill like Oregon’s.

No, he said, there were still concerns about it.

By now you’ve spotted the merely incremental withdrawal of supposed possible support. So I asked him outright if there was any form of assisted dying Bill he could support.

The relevant word within a long discourse: No.

And there’s the answer that belies the political strategy. It doesn’t matter one whit what provisions are included in an assisted dying Bill, just criticize a bunch of provisions and create FUD to defeat it.

 

A direct challenge to Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick

If “doubters of this Bill” are genuine about permitting assisted dying in some defined circumstances, the duty is on them to define those circumstances and recommend wording to enact it.

And that’s the challenge I throw down directly to Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick. Don’t just bitch and gripe: define precisely what provisions and wording you think would be acceptable.

If you fail to stipulate what you deem acceptable, then your opposition to “this flawed Bill” is, like the supposedly ‘soft’ opposition of other campaigners in the negative, merely a ruse.

And that’s rather suggested by your deliberate use of the term “killing” for what most Australians believe to be an understandable and welcome release. But let’s give you the benefit of the doubt… for now.

Will you rise to the constructive challenge, or lurk in the shadows merely making snide remarks and flip-flopping?

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* Section 62 of the Act also requires a doctor to notify the Public Advocate if “significant treatment” is refused — but only if it is refused by a substitute decision maker on behalf of the patient: not by the patient herself. And “significant treatment” is defined as treatments (not non-treatments) which are likely to have a serious impact on the patient (bodily intrusion, risk to life, side effects or distress). “Significant treatment” in the Act does not mean treatment whose refusal may result in death.


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