World Medical Association to consider policy changes on abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide

Debate planned for ethics conference in October in Iceland

Sean Murphy*

Following a meeting of the WMA Council in Riga, Latvia, the WMA issued a statement noting that a revised version of the WMA abortion policy would be presented for approval at the WMA annual General Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland.

In addition, the WMA has announced that there will be a further “open debate” on changing the Association’s policy against physician participation in euthanasia and assisted suicide.  The debate will occur during a WMA conference on medical ethics taking place at the same time and place.  Formal presentations on euthanasia and assisted suicide will be given on 4 October, 2018, but informal discussions among delegates are likely to be important.  The debate appears to be a consequence of lobbying by the Canadian and Royal Dutch Medical Associations to convince the WMA to drop its condemnation of the practices

It is not clear whether or not WMA members appreciate the relationship between abortion policy and euthanasia policy.  Compulsory referral for abortion is essentially a dress rehearsal for compulsory referral for euthanasia and assisted suicide, something clearly demonstrated in Canada.  Accusations of “patient abandonment” formerly aimed at those refusing to refer for abortion1 are now, in addition, being levelled at those who refuse to refer patients to someone willing to kill them or help them commit suicide.2

In 2011, a Royal Society of Canada panel of experts chaired by Udo Schuklenk  recommended legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia.3  The experts insisted that health care professionals unwilling to provide euthanasia help patients commit suicide must refer them to someone willing to do so.4 This was justified, they said, because it was agreed that objectors are obliged to refer for “reproductive health services.”5  It really was not agreed: the Canadian Medical Association had, in fact, rejected this claim five years earlier6 after it was made by Jocelyn Downie,7 one of Schuklenk’s colleagues on the Royal Society Panel.

By 2015 Schuklenk was arguing that objecting physicians should not be accommodated at all. Among his arguments was that referring for abortion or euthanasia is not a compromise because it involves moral complicity in the act, “barely reduced” by the act of referral.8  This implied that physicians should be forced to provide abortion and euthanasia, notwithstanding religious or conscientious convictions to the contrary, a position Schuklenk explicitly adopted over the next two years.9, 10

At the same time, Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran was insisting that physicians should be forced to kill eligible patients themselves.11 He claimed that this was required by human rights law,12 describing effective referral as an unacceptable form of illicit discrimination.13

In considering changes to euthanasia, assisted suicide and abortion policies in October, WMA delegates will have to take great care to consider not only the most obvious ethical issues of life and death, but less obvious yet important issues like the distinction between acceptable cooperation and unacceptable collaboration, which play out in disputes about mandatory referral for abortion and euthanasia.


Notes
1.  “According to the prevailing norm of beneficence therefore, as well as those of trust, patient autonomy, and not abandoning patients, physicians should refer patients for abortions.”  McLeod C. Referral in the Wake of Conscientious Objection to Abortion. Hypatia, Vol. 23, No. 4 (October-December, 2008) at p. 36 (Accessed 2018-08-022).

2.  Cook M. Canadian court tells doctors they must refer for euthanasia. Mercatornet, 2 February, 2018

3. Schuklenk U, van Delden JJM, Downie J, McLean S, Upshur R, Weinstock D. Report of the Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel on End-of-Life Decision Making (November, 2011)[“Royal Society“] p. 96 (Accessed 2014-02-23).

4.  Royal Society, p. 69, 101.

5.  Royal Society, p. 62.

6.  Blackmer J. Clarification of the CMA’s position on induced abortion. CMAJ April 24, 2007 vol. 176 no. 9 doi: 10.1503/cmaj.1070035 (Accessed 2017-12-12).

7.  Rodgers S. Downie J. Abortion: Ensuring Access. CMAJ July 4, 2006 vol. 175 no. 1 doi: 10.1503/cmaj.060548 (Accessed 2017-12-12).

8.  Schuklenk, U. Conscientious objection in medicine: private ideological convictions must not supercede public service obligations (2015) 29:5 Bioethics ii, DOI: 10.1111/bioe.12167

9.  Schuklenk U, Smalling R. Why medical professionals have no claim to conscientious objection accommodation in liberal democracies (2016) 43:4 J Med Ethics 234, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/medethics-2016-103560.

10. Savulescu J, Schuklenk U. Doctors have no right to refuse medical assistance in dying, abortion or contraception (2017) 31:3 Bioethics 162, DOI: 10.1111/bioe.12288

11.  Though conceding that a lethal drug might be administered in the physician’s presence by a delegate, and that referral might be necessitated by technical incompetence. Attaran A. The Limits of Conscientious and Religious Objection to Physician-Assisted Dying after the Supreme Court’s Decision in Carter v Canada (2016 ) 36:3 Health L Can 86 [“Attaran“], p. 87-88, 96.

12.  “[W]hen a doctor refuses to assist a patient who is disabled by a ‘grievous and irremediable medical condition’, just because the patient wants death rather than something else, that arguably discriminates against the disabled patient.” Attaran, p. 89.

13.  Attaran, p. 91–93.

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