Australia’s legislative laboratory for euthanasia

BioEdge

Michael Cook

The Labor-majority Parliament of the Australian state of Victoria passed assisted dying legislation in December 2017. This came into effect in June and the first patient has already died. Applications from a dozen or so Victorians have already been approved. Two other Labor states are also debating euthanasia – and it appears that their legislation will be even more permissive than Victoria’s.

According to critics of euthanasia interviewed by The Australian, this is “death creep”, the slippery slope in action.

“There is serious concern about this slippage,” the chair of the Australian Medical Association’s ethics and medico legal committee, Chris Moye, says. “A lot of this (change) was happening even before the Victorian law, which is only two months old, has actually been tested. At this point, we haven’t seen how assisted dying works in Victoria and yet the slippage is happening across these various jurisdictions. I think there are two reasons: people were always going to be looking at it (the Victorian law) and the tendency always is to relax legislation.”

Critics focus on details of a proposed bill in the parliament of Western Australia. In Victoria, doctors are not allowed to raise the topic of assisted dying. But in WA, doctors would be permitted to suggest the possibility of euthanasia and no specialist has to be involved.

Conscientious objection is more difficult as well. In Victoria, objecting doctors are not obliged to refer the person on; in WA they would be.

In Queensland, a parliamentary committee is studying draft legislation. This is even more permissive than Victoria’s or WA’s. There is no time requirement – only that the patient have an incurable terminal illness which is causing intolerable and enduring suffering.

However, Professor Ben White, who helped write Queensland draft bill,  dismisses fears of a “slippery slope”. “When people talk about a slippery slope in terms of the law, they are talking about law X in a particular state or country that is enacted and over time gets changed,” he says. “We live in a federation … and there are differences in laws from one state to another, reflecting a range of factors, including geography. What might be appropriate for a state like Victoria might … require different solutions in Western Australia or Queensland.”


This article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

Should lesbian couples have access to mitochondrial replacement therapy?

BioEdge

Michael Cook

“Three parent babies!!!!” was a shock-horror headline across the world when the UK was debating mitochondrial replacement therapy a couple of years ago. This is a technique to avoid passing on mitochondrial diseases from mother to child. There are different methods, but they involve combining the nuclear DNA of the mother’s egg with healthy mitochondrial DNA from another woman and fertilisation with sperm.

The government’s fertility regulator, the HFEA, explained that this was meant to “to avoid passing on serious genetic diseases to future generations”. Under existing legislation, MRT can only be used for this purpose.

Much of the opposition to the technique in a very heated debate was the unconventional matter of a child sharing two mothers, or at least, sharing the genes of two women. Many found this profoundly unnatural.

However, there is a group of women who might welcome this – lesbian couples. For them, it could be a way of creating a child with a shared genetic heritage.

Or so argue Giulia Cavaliere and César Palacios-González, of , King’s College London, in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Their reasoning is quite interesting. (It is spelled out a bit more simply in a blog post.)

First of all, against the headlines about “cures” for desperately ill children, they insist (as did many opponents of MTR) that no MRTs can be considered therapeutic as they do not cure children/embryos affected by mtDNA diseases, but they are rather a means to create children that are not affected by mtDNA diseases.

Second, they ask, if “cures” are not the reason for the existing legislation, what is? Their answer might have escaped the MPs who votes for it, but it fits:

the rationale to offer MRTs is to allow women at risk of transmitting mtDNA disease to have healthy children that are genetically related to them. The rationale, in other words, is to expand these women’s reproductive freedom …

Third, if reproductive freedom (and not the health of a child) is the most fundamental reason, then all women deserve to take advantage of MTR, not just the mothers of sick children. Lesbian couples are equally needy and deserving.

Providing access to MRTs to women at risk of transmitting a mtDNA disease and not to lesbian couples is in our view contrary to one of the tenets of morality, which demands to treat like cases alike. Denying access to MRTs to lesbian couples is morally unjustifiable in as much as it curtails the enjoyment of certain freedoms to a certain group without good reason, whilst allowing others to enjoy the very same freedoms.

Some bioethicists would call this the slippery slope in action. Others would respond that it is merely extending the inherent logic of the legislation. In any case, it certainly is an unexpected interpretation of the legislation.

This article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact BioEdge for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

Accessed 2018-03-28

 

Quebec nurses back euthanasia for the demented to the hilt: survey

BioEdge

Michael Cook

An overwhelming majority of registered nurses working in Quebec nursing homes support euthanasia for dementia patients who have left a living will, researchers from Canada and the Netherlands. In an article in the journal Geriatric Nursing.

Euthanasia is legal in Canada, but only for patients who are competent, even if they had expressed a request for “medical aid in dying” in their lucid moments. However, this restriction is under pressure. After a man killed his demented wife, the Quebec Minister of Health and Social Services asked experts to study whether MAiD could be provided for patients with advance directives.

Although only doctors are able to euthanize patients, the researchers point out that “Given their unique experience and expertise, nurses’ voice must be taken into account in deciding whether or not to modify the current legislation to give incompetent patients access to MAiD.”

Five hundred and fourteen nurses were surveyed; 219 responded. Of these, “83.5% agreed with the current legislation that allows physicians to administer aid in dying to competent patients who are at the end of life and suffer unbearably. A similar proportion (83%) were in favor of extending medical aid in dying to incompetent patients who are at the terminal stage of Alzheimer disease, show signs of distress, and have made a written request before losing capacity.”

Just as interesting as the nurses’ attitudes towards incompetent patients was their feelings about how they would like to be treated themselves should they become demented. If diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, 79% said that they would make a formal request to die. If a love-ones were diagnosed, 65% would call a doctor to euthanise them (provided they had left a request).


This article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation to BioEdge. Commercial media must contact BioEdge for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

Dutch doctors oppose plans for ‘completed life’ euthanasia

BioEdge

Michael Cook

Although Dutch government proposals for euthanasia for “completed life” – that is, for elderly people who want to step off the treadmill gracefully – have received a lot of publicity, they have not been legislated.

Now the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG), the peak body for doctors in the Netherlands, has announced its opposition.” Such a radical proposal is not desirable for practical reasons and for reasons of principle,” says the KNMG.

Adding another law to govern the practice of euthanasia will lead to great complications, it contends. “The current Act is meticulous, transparent, verifiable, safe for patients and physicians, and has broad support.”

The government’s proposal could harm the elderly. “Vulnerability due to age, when people experience many medical and non-medical problems, can cause unbearable and hopeless suffering within the meaning of the legislation.” It could end up stigmatising the elderly.

The KNMG points out that the term “completed life” has an attractive ring to it for the public. “In practice, however, it will mainly be vulnerable people who experience loneliness and loss of meaning. These are complex and tragic problems for which no simple solutions.”


This article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation to BioEdge. Commercial media must contact BioEdge for permission and fees.

If sex reassignment surgery is the answer, what is the question?

BioEdge

Michael Cook*

Sex reassignment surgery requires the intervention of doctors. But what kind of treatment is it? Is it a therapy for a disease which should be offered only after psychiatric authorization? Or is it a biomedical enhancement which anyone can freely choose?

The answer to this theoretical question has practical consequences. If it is a therapy, then transgenderism is a disease. If it is an enhancement, then it hardly deserves to be funded by the government.

In a very interesting article in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Tomislav Bracanović, of the University of Zagreb, in Croatia, analyses the competing conceptions. . . [Full text]

 

Give them sterile razors: controversial self-harm strategy

BioEdge

Michael Cook*

Some people who self-harm should be provided with sterile razors, says a mental health expert in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Patrick Sullivan, of the University of Manchester, argues that this approach may be more respectful of patients’ autononomy. He suggests that a harm-minimisation strategy for self-harming individuals could include provision of sterile cutting implements, education on how to self-injure more safely to avoid blood poisoning and infection, as well as therapy and alternative coping strategies. . . .
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Australian women complain of ‘gender disappointment’

BioEdge

Michael Cook*

“Gender disappointment” is not a recognised medical condition. But many women in Australia – where gender selection is illegal — attribute their depression to it. Speaking to Australia’s ABC network, a woman using the pseudonym Kate described it as “a guilt-ridden, debilitating depression”. She has two boys and she desperately wants a daughter.. . .
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Are tribunals the solution to disruptive conscientious objectors?

Michael Cook*

While some bioethicists believe that conscientious objection has no place in modern medicine, others feel that they could be accommodated by setting up tribunals. Here are three proposed this year in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

In times of conscription, military tribunals assess whether a pleas of conscientious objection in legitimate or not. Why not follow this model for healthcare workers, asks Steve Clarke. . .

Robert Card . . . argues in the JME that doctors need to give “public reasons” for conscientious objection. . .This leads him to propose review boards staffed by medical professionals, bioethicists and lawyers.

. . .Jonathan A. Hughes . . . proposed the establishment of Conscientious Objection Tribunals . . . No conscientious objection would be allowed without a licence. . .
[Full text]

Everybody’s a winner when euthanasia combines with organ donation, say doctors

BioEdge

Michael Cook

Several Dutch and Belgian doctors have proposed legal reforms to increase the popularity of combining euthanasia and organ donation in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, they report valuable unpublished information about the prevalence of the procedure. So far, it has been performed only about 40 times in the two countries. However, there is “a persisting discrepancy between the number of organ donors and the number of patients on the waiting lists for transplantation” – which euthanasia patients could help to balance.

The authors stress that euthanasia is not a cure-all for the organ shortage. Most euthanasia patients suffer from cancer, which is a contraindication for organ transplantation. However, 25 to 30% of them do not, so there is obviously a real possibility of expanding the supply.

Furthermore, the authors say, public perception of this formerly abhorrent practice is increasingly positive:

. . . transplant coordinators in Belgium and the Netherlands notice a contemporary trend towards an increasing willingness and motivation to undergo euthanasia and to subsequently donate organs as well, supported by the increasing number of publications in popular media on this topic.

Ethically, the procedure is basically uncontroversial as long as the patient is not pressured to donate, they contend.

In the context of organ donation after euthanasia, the right of self-determination is a paramount ethical and legal aspect. It is the patient’s wish and right to die in a dignified way, and likewise his wish to donate his organs is expressed. Organ donation after euthanasia enables those who do not wish to remain alive to prolong the lives of those who do, and also—compared with ‘classical’ donation after circulatory death—allows many more people to fulfil their wish to donate organs after death.

However, there are some legal hitches in both countries. In the Netherlands, unlike Belgium, euthanasia is regarded as an “unnatural death” which has to be reported to the public prosecutor. This could delay donations. If the law were changed to allow the cause of death to be reported as the underlying condition, the procedure would be more expeditious. And “In Belgium, the current policy of determination of death by three independent physicians could be abandoned, facilitating a more lean procedure with only one physician.”

Public perceptions need to be managed as well. At the moment, it is necessary to maintain a strict separation between the request for euthanasia and the need for the organ. Partly this is needed to ensure that the donor is not being pressured. But the public also needs to have confidence that physicians will give objective advice.

Finally, there is the tradition of the dead donor rule “that donation should not cause or hasten death”. The authors imply that this could be scrapped for euthanasia volunteers:

Since a patient undergoing euthanasia has chosen to die, it is worth arguing that the no-touch time (depending on the protocol) could be skipped, limiting the warm ischaemia time and contributing to the quality of the transplanted organs. It is even possible to extend this argument to a ‘heart-beating organ donation euthanasia’ where a patient is sedated, after which his organs are being removed, causing death.

The article’s proposals were not received with great enthusiasm in the UK where there is a simmering debate on assisted dying. Tory MP Fiona Bruce told the Daily Mail: “The paper confirms the worst fears expressed by Parliament when the House of Commons conclusively voted to stop the legalisation of assisted suicide in this country. The possibility of euthanasia achieved through live organ donation, such as by removing a patient’s beating heart, as posited in this paper is shocking and chilling.”

And Lord Carlile of Berriew, a Liberal Democrat peer who is a leading lawyer, said: “I have extreme concerns about the ghoulish nature of the combined euthanasia and organ donation systems in the Netherlands and Belgium. Both can result in unbearable and irresistible pressure on an individual to die, and on a doctor to encourage death.”


cclicense-some-rightsThis article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation to BioEdge. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

 

The unsettled status of conscientious objection in the UK

BioEdge

Michael Cook

What are the rights of doctors who have a conscientious objection to certain procedures in the United Kingdom? The slightly confusing status quo is the subject of an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics by a Cambridge University academic, John Adenitire.

Dr Adenitire sketches a gradation of hostility towards conscientious objection.

1. At the very top there are Julian Savulescu and others who have argued that conscientious objection is “a door to a Pandora’s box of idiosyncratic, bigoted, discriminatory medicine” and has little place in modern medical practice. This is not a widely shared view.

2. Then there is the British Medical Association (BMA), the profession’s “trade union”, which defends conscientious objection only in three specific scenarios. It “should ordinarily be limited to those procedures where statute recognises their right (abortion and fertility treatment) and to withdrawing life-prolonging treatment from patients who lack capacity, where other doctors are in a position to take over the care.”

3. And then there is the General Medical Council (GMC), the profession’s regulator in the UK, which allows conscientious objection, albeit with a number of caveats. According to its 2013 policy statement, Personal beliefs and medical practice: “You may choose to opt out of providing a particular procedure because of your personal beliefs and values, as long as this does not result in direct or indirect discrimination against, or harassment of, individual patients or groups of patients. This means you must not refuse to treat a particular patient or group of patients because of your personal beliefs or views about them.‡ And you must not refuse to treat the health consequences of lifestyle choices to which you object because of your beliefs.”

4. Most accommodating of all is a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the British case of Eweida in 2013. It applied Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights to several cases of discrimination in the UK. Article 9 guarantees “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, “subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.

It is Dr Adenitire’s contention that the Eweida ruling “effectively provides that medical professionals have the right to conscientiously object to providing certain healthcare services well beyond the scope endorsed by the BMA”.

This implies that “Given the unsettled nature of the law on the topic, [National Health Service] employers will have to proceed very cautiously as it will not always be clear whether denying a request will be considered lawful by a court. This entails that NHS bodies may be at risk of expensive legal challenges by medical professionals whose requests have been denied.”

Dr Adenitire therefore believes that the BMA’s policy should be changed to align more closely to the Eweida ruling.

However, the law is still unsettled and Dr Adenitire is not necessarily hostile to proposals for legalised assisted dying which are currently being debated in the UK. In an unpublished paper he goes on to argue that in certain circumstances doctors already have a “conscience-based right to provide assistance in dying”.


cclicense-some-rightsThis article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation to BioEdge. Commercial media must contact BioEdge for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.