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.

World Medical Association urged to change policy against euthanasia, assisted suicide

Canadian & Royal Dutch Medical Association want censure dropped

Sean Murphy*

The President of the World Federation of the Catholic Medical Associations has disclosed that the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and Royal Dutch Medical Association (RDMA) have asked the World Medical Association to change its policy against euthanasia and physician assisted suicide.

The WMA issued a Declaration on Euthanasia in 19871 and a Resolution on Euthanasia  in 2002;2  they are now identical. The WMA Statement on Physician Assisted Suicide was made in 1992 and reaffirmed in 2005 and 2015:

Physician-assisted suicide, like euthanasia, is unethical and must be condemned by the medical profession. Where the assistance of the physician is intentionally and deliberately directed at enabling an individual to end his or her own life, the physician acts unethically. However the right to decline medical is a basic right of the patient, and the physician does not act unethically even if respecting such a wish results in the death of the patient.3

Writing to the President of the World Medical Association, Dr. John Lee stated that the CMA and RDMA suggested that existing policy be replaced with the following:

8. The WMA does not support euthanasia or physician assisted suicide, but WMA does not condemn physicians who follow their own conscience in deciding whether or not to participate in these activities, within the bounds of the legislation, in those jurisdictions where euthanasia and/or physician assisted dying are legalized.

9. No physician should be forced to participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide against their personal moral beliefs. Equally, no conscientiously objecting physician should be forced to refer a patient directly to another physician. Jurisdictions that legalize euthanasia or physician assisted suicide must provide mechanisms that will ensure access for those patients who meet the appropriate requirements. Physicians, individually or collectively, must not be made responsible for ensuring access.4

Dr. Lee also expressed opposition to a planned revision to the Declaration of Oslo concerning abortion, which, he said, would require objecting physicians to refer for abortions and even to provide them.  However, he commented at greater length on the proposed change to WMA policy on euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Based on the Canadian experience, acceptance of the ethical neutrality of medically-assisted death has resulted in almost immediate challenges for physicians who are unable to refer because of moral, religious, or ethical concerns. It is a serious problem, with physicians put in the impossible position of having to choose between their conscience and being allowed to continue to care for their patients.4

The Canadian roots of the CMA/RDMA proposal

Dr. Lee’s observations about developments in parts of Canada are accurate.  The text of paragraph 8 is very similar to the CMA resolution used by the CMA Board of Directors as the basis for reversing CMA policy against euthanasia and assisted suicide. . . [Full Text]

Ensuring access to euthanasia by encouraging physician participation: it’s complicated

Sean Murphy*

In July, 2017, Canadian euthanasia/assisted suicide (EAS) practitioners and advocates alleged that patient access to euthanasia and assisted suicide was in danger because of “barriers” and “disincentives” to physician participation. Dr. Stefanie Green, president of their professional association, described the situation as “a crisis.”1 There was, in fact, no crisis — only a false perception of crisis fuelled by unrealistic expectations about levels of physician participation in euthanasia and assisted suicide.2

Nonetheless, it is reasonable for policy makers to respond to their concerns that physicians are discouraged from participating in euthanasia and assisted suicide. Indeed, objecting physicians are less likely to experience disadvantage and coercion if policy-makers seriously consider suggestions by EAS practitioners and advocates about how to encourage physician participation in euthanasia.

Removing barriers and disincentives to physician participation

Minimizing procedural and administrative requirements
Returning to the complaints and concerns of Canadian euthanasia practitioners (see Canada’s Summer of Discontent2), reducing or streamlining procedural requirements and minimizing burdensome paperwork might encourage more physicians to participate. However, this raises a question that may prove difficult to answer. Is a procedural requirement a “barrier” — or a necessary safeguard? A “disincentive” — or an essential ethical prerequisite? The difficulty is illustrated by developments in Belgium. . . .[Full text]

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.”


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When is a problem not a problem?

Refusing to dispense drugs to kill patients with psychiatric illness

Levenseinde Kliniek complains about uncooperative Dutch pharmacists

Sean Murphy*

In April, 2014, a complaint was made in the Netherlands that some Dutch pharmacists were refusing to provide euthanasia drugs.  The complaint led members of the Dutch Parliament from the green party, GroenLinks, to ask for a debate with health minister, and members of other Dutch political parties let it be known that they were also concerned.

 According to the news reports, over half the physicians at “the independent euthanasia clinic” had been refused lethal drugs, and 23 percent of 53 pharmacists surveyed reported that they sometimes refused to fill euthanasia prescriptions.  It was argued that pharmacists should not be able to refuse drugs needed to kill patients if two physicians had approved the euthanasia request.  However, while the law in the Netherlands permits physicians to provide euthanasia, it does not mention pharmacists. [Full Text]

Canadian Medical Association softens stand on assisted suicide

Globe and Mail

André Picard

The Canadian Medical Association, which has a long-standing policy saying doctors should not participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide, is substantially softening its stance.

Delegates to the organization’s general council decided Tuesday that the CMA now “supports the right of all physicians, within the bounds of existing legislation, to follow their conscience when deciding whether to provide medical aid in dying.”

The carefully crafted position is an acknowledgment that, while assisting death is still a crime in Canada, the attitudes of Canadians, including those of physicians, are changing quickly, and so is the law.

While the group’s official policy has not changed, “it’s only a matter of time,” said Louis Francescutti, outgoing president of the CMA. Dr. Francescutti said the “conscience” resolution, which was adopted by an overwhelming 91 per cent of delegates, means that the CMA supports a doctor’s right to refuse to hasten the death of a terminally ill patient, but it will also support a doctor’s right to hasten death if the law allows.[Full text]