Why I will be a conscientious objector to Victoria’s assisted dying law

A palliative care specialist laments the unrealistic individualism and elitism of the euthanasia movement

MercatorNet

Adrian Dabscheck

During a recent period of enforced rest, I had time to reflect on my attitude to the recently enacted voluntary assisted dying legislation in Victoria and consider my response.1 I will detail my reaction to the Act and why I have chosen to become a so-called conscientious objector.

In his essay Western Attitudes Toward Death,2 French historian Philippe Ariès illustrates the evolution of our attitudes to death.

Initially, and for millennia, there had been a general resignation to the destiny of our species for which he used the phrase, Et moriemur, and we shall all die. This was replaced in the 12th Century by the more modern concept of the importance of one’s self, and he used the phrase, la mort de soi, one’s own death.

Ariès then notes that in the 18th Century man gave death a dramatic and disquieting meaning. Man became concerned with the death of the other person, la mort de toi. Death was no longer familiar, nor were the dead. The dead had been torn from life; death had become an important event. By the 19th Century mourning had become difficult and thy death, la mort de toi, is more feared than la mort de soi, one’s own death.

Following this slow evolution in Western attitudes towards death, from being ubiquitous and familiar, with industrialisation, came the concept of the forbidden and shameful death. Life was now meant to be happy and this happiness was interrupted by the emotional disturbance of death and dying. Death was not spoken of, as illustrated by Tolstoy in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”.3 Death was moved from home to hospital, from the care of one’s family to the sanitised, technical care whereby it is difficult to tell when the dying process actually began due to the interference of modern medicine. Death became part of the medical industrial-movement.

In a 2013 article reviewing the situation in Flanders where euthanasia is embedded in palliative care,4 it was noted:

Healthcare professionals note that family members and proxies tend, much more than before, to consider the dying process as undignified, useless and meaningless, even if it happens peacefully, comfortably and with professional support. Requests made by family members for fast and active interventions from healthcare professionals regarding elderly parents are often very coercive, with little nuance or subtlety. End-of-life interventions such as euthanasia are seen as an instrument to end a process of disease (or old age) that is demanding and difficult to bear, instead of letting it follow its course.’

We could not be further removed from Ariès’ phrase, Et moriemur, and we shall all die. Happiness is now the ultimate goal; we can no longer accept the place of death in our life. Ariès wrote in L’Homme devant la mort:5 “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society. A death without pain or suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Thus the idealised ‘good death’.

Unfortunately, for most, society is unable to achieve such utopian goals, hence the need for the modern palliative care movement. As David Roy noted in the third edition of the Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine,6 it is up to society to allow the palliative care movement to flourish, to remove barriers to care, to develop the broad tapestry of interconnected people, resources, services and institutions to care for those who suffer in the face of death.

For this to be successful there must be an effective ethic of care. An ethic that allows relationships to flourish, an ethic that acknowledges the vulnerability of people and views autonomy from a relational rather than an atomistic perspective. Autonomy is a product of our personhood, our development of interests and values gained by interactions with others. None of us can make decisions which are free from influence. Our decisions relating to ourselves are made in the context of relationships. We commence our life completely dependent on others to sustain us. We depend on the non-judgemental love of others to care for us, to allow us to become independent, to become autonomous in the context of family, friends and society.

I continually ask myself, how have we allowed our ethical boundaries to move to such a degree that a law allowing doctors to take life as a way of relieving suffering has been passed by our state legislature? How have we allowed our view of the individual to become so individualistic and self-gratifying, so removed from an acknowledgement of our dependence on others, so self-centred or dare I say narcissistic?

Perhaps we can learn for the world of art and aesthetics. Hans van Meegeren was an accomplished forger of Vermeer, such that Vermeer experts accepted as originals what are obvious from our current perspective as forgeries. David Roy asks:6 “What process was at work that could so distort the faculties of aesthetic perception and poor judgement? It was a process of incremental adaption to incrementally poor forgeries.”

The Netherlands introduced the Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide (Review Procedures) Act in 2001. In 2005, of all deaths, 0.4 percent were the result of the ending of life without an explicit request by the patient.7 In 2013 euthanasia was performed for 97 patients with dementia and 42 patients with psychiatric diseases (percentages not reported).8 Have ethical perceptions been distorted such that incremental creep allowed this to happen, as it did with aesthetics and van Meegeren?

In an article published in May 2017 in the New England Journal of Medicine discussing the experience of the University Health Network in Toronto after the introduction of medical assistance in dying (MAiD) in Canada,9 the authors noted:

[T]hose who received MAiD tended to be white and relatively affluent and indicated that loss of autonomy was the primary reason for their request. Other common reasons included the wish to avoid burdening others or losing dignity and the intolerability of not being able to enjoy one’s life. Few patients cited inadequate control of pain or other symptoms.

I would like to question if the possible consequent good of allowing a highly selected population of privileged people the ability to request and be administered medical assistance in dying is sufficient to overturn millennia of accepted medical practice. Medicine has long been perceived by society to be beneficent and is trusted to avoid actions which would deliberately hasten death. The intent of palliative medicine is the relief of pain and suffering, not the taking of life. Should we risk the incremental creep of our values for the sake of a privileged few?

Do we wish to allow our society to become similar to Belgium, where we are so removed from the human experience that we consider the dying process useless, meaningless and undignified?

In my own city, Melbourne, we can all witness the inadequate provision of palliative care and other health services to more economically challenged sections of our society. A similar picture emerges in rural settings. Can we as a society justify allocating resources to voluntary assisted dying, when basic palliative care and health care are so lacking?

Should we really allow the values of our society to be so radically altered for the few who are so removed from an acceptance of the frailty of the human experience, from an acceptance that we are all dependent on others and vulnerable?

It is for the above reasons that I will be a so-called conscientious objector when the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act comes into operation on 19 June 2019. I will continue to practise medicine as it has been practised for millennia, for the relief of pain and suffering. I would encourage all doctors to in Victoria to do likewise.


Adrian Dabscheck is a Palliative Care Consultant from Victoria

References

1.  Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 (Vic).

2.  Ariès P. Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

3.  Tolstoy L. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Published in 1886.

4.  Vanden Berghe P, et al. Assisted Dying – the current situation in Flanders: euthanasia embedded in palliative care. European Journal of Palliative Care 2013;20(6):266-272.

5.  Ariès P. L’Homme devant la mort (The Hour of Our Death). Published in 1977.

6.  Doyle D, et al. (eds.) Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine. 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press, 2005.

7.  Van der Heide A, et al. End-of-Life Practices in the Netherlands under the Euthanasia Act. New England Journal of Medicine 2007;356:1957-1965.

8.  Radbruch L, et al. Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide: A white paper from the European Association for Palliative Care. Palliative Medicine 2016;30(2):104-116.

9.  Li M, et al. Medical assistance in dying – implementing a hospital-based program in Canada. New England Journal of Medicine 2017;376:2082-2088.


This article is published by Adrian Dabscheck and MercatorNet 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 MercatorNet. Commercial media must contact MercatorNet for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

Are organ donors really dead?

BioEdge

Xavier Symons

What does it mean for a human being to “die”? This question is more complex than one might think. In the domain of vital organ procurement, there is significant disagreement about the criteria that we should employ to assess when someone has died.

The standard criterion for several decades has been the “brain death” criterion, according to which a patient can be pronounced dead once “whole brain death” has occurred. Whole brain death refers to the comprehensive and irreversible cessation of brain function, typically caused by trauma, anoxia or tumor.

Yet transplant surgeons have in recent years employed a different, more ethically contentious definition of death, the so-called “circulatory criterion for death”. “Circulatory death” refers to the permanent cessation of cardiopulmonary function, after which point brain tissue quickly begins to deteriorate (if it hasn’t already).

According to proponents of the circulatory criterion, a patient’s heart will never spontaneously restart after 2 or so minutes of pulselessness. As such, it is seen as ethically permissible to begin organ procurement once this short time period has elapsed. There are in practice different time periods specified by healthcare regulators for when organ procurement can begin (typically between 75 seconds and 5 minutes).

Yet several scholars have criticised the cardiopulmonary definition of death, arguing that the impossibility of autoresuscitation does not necessarily indicate that death has occurred. Critics point out that CPR could still restart a person’s heart even when autoresuscitation has become an impossibility.

The most recent criticism came from Kennedy Institute for Ethics bioethicist Robert Veatch, who wrote an extended blog post on the topic this week. Veatch states:

If one opts for requiring physiological irreversibility, death should be pronounced whenever it is physiologically impossible to restore brain function. Autoresuscitation is completely irrelevant. If autoresuscitation can be ruled out before physiological irreversibility, one must still wait until that point is reached. On the other hand, if it becomes physiologically impossible to restore function before autoresuscitation can be ruled out, death can be pronounced at the earlier point. Either way autoresuscitation is irrelevant.


This article is published by Xavier Symons 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.

Conscience claims, metaphysics, and avoiding an LGBT eugenic

Abram Brummet

Abstract

Novel assisted reproductive technologies (ART) are poised to present our society with strange new ethical questions, such as whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) couples should be allowed to produce children biologically related to both parents, or whether trans-women who want to experience childbirth should be allowed to receive uterine transplants. Clinicians opposed to offering such technologies to LGBT couples on moral grounds are likely to seek legal shelter through the conscience clauses enshrined in U.S. law. This paper begins by briefly discussing some novel ART on the horizon and noting that it is unclear whether current conscience clauses will permit fertility clinics to deny such services to LGBT individuals. A compromise approach to conscience is any view that sees the value of respecting conscience claims within limits. I describe and critique the constraints proposed in the recent work of Wicclair, NeJaime and Siegel as ultimately begging the question. My purpose is to strengthen their arguments by suggesting that in the controversial situations that elicit claims of conscience, bioethicists should engage with the metaphysical claims in play. I argue that conscience claims against LGBT individuals ought to be constrained because the underlying metaphysic—that God has decreed the LGBT lifestyle to be sinful—is highly implausible from the perspective of a naturalized metaphysic, which ought to be the lens through which we evaluate conscience claims.


Brummett A. Conscience claims, metaphysics, and avoiding an LGBT eugenic. Bioethics. 2018;00:1–9.

Divisions, New and Old — Conscience and Religious Freedom at HHS

Lisa H. Harris

January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the creation of its Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, explaining that it will allow HHS’s Office of Civil Rights to “more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom” and will ensure that “no one is coerced into participating in activities that would violate their consciences, such as abortion, sterilization or assisted suicide.”1 Responses were as expected: religious conservatives hailed the new division as a needed intervention; public health and clinical leaders and advocates decried it, worrying about its impact on access to care and harm to patients.

HHS leaders’ comments to date suggest that they are uninterested in discrimination against health care providers whose consciences compel them to provide care, and uninterested in injuries to patients caused by care refusals. This framing makes conscience yet another issue dividing Americans, largely along partisan lines.


Harris LH.  Divisions, New and Old — Conscience and Religious Freedom at HHS. N Eng J Med 2018 Apr 12;378(15):1369-1371. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1801154. Epub 2018 Mar 14

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

 

Is there any difference between euthanasia and palliated starvation?

BioEdge

Xavier Symons

While euthanasia and assisted suicide are currently illegal in most countries, the practice of voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED) is seen by some as an ethically and legally permissible alternative. VSED refers to seriously-ill patients refusing to eat and drink for a sustained period of time with the intention of bringing about their own death.

Yet a new paper published in BMC Medicine argues that VSED is ethically indistinguishable from assisted suicide, and should be subject to the same legal regulations as more salient cases of assistance in dying.

The paper, lead-authored by Ralf J. Jox of the Institute for Ethics, History and Theory of Medicine at the University of Munich, argues that “supporting patients who embark on VSED amounts to assistance in suicide, at least in some instances, depending on the kind of support and its relation to the patient’s intention”.

While VSED does not involve an invasive or aggressive act like many other means of suicide, the authors write that “VSED should [nevertheless] be considered as a form of suicide, as there is both an intention to bring about death and an omission that directly causes this effect”. Doctors who assist patients in VSED — by encouraging them, or promising pain-relief if VSED is undertaken — are potentially instrumental in the deaths of the patients, as the suicide would not occur without them, and they share the patient’s intention of inducing death.

The authors of the paper conclude that the same legal prescriptions or regulations that apply to physician assisted suicide should also apply to VSED.

“[We] maintain… that future ethical discussions on assisted suicide require consideration of medically supported VSED, and vice versa…Thus, the widely held position by palliative care societies, professional bodies of physicians, legal scholars, and ethicists to disapprove of assisted suicide but approve of and even promote medically supported VSED appears inconsistent”.


This article is published by Xavier Symons 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.

 

Accessed 2017-08-11

 

Contraceptive Coverage and the Balance Between Conscience and Access

Ronit Y. Stahl,PhD; Holly Fernandez Lynch, JD, MBE

When the Obama administration included contraception in the essential benefits package to be covered by employer-sponsored health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act, it sought to preserve access for women while addressing the concerns of employers with religious objections. Although the accommodations and exemptions were not enough for some employers, balance was the ultimate goal. This also was reflected in Zubik v Burwell, the Supreme Court’s most recent decision on the matter; on May 16, 2016, the justices remanded the litigants to the lower court so they could be afforded the opportunity to reach a compromise between religious exercise and seamless contraceptive coverage. No further compromise was forthcoming.

Now the Trump administration has rejected balance as a worthwhile goal.1 Its new contraceptive coverage rules, released on October 6, 2017, prioritize conscientious objection over access.2,3 The rules take effect immediately, and new legal challenges, this time on behalf of patients rather than objecting employers, have already begun.4 The new rules preserve the default requirement that employers must include free access to contraceptives as part of their insurance plans. However, the rules now exempt employers with religious or moral objections to contraceptives, without requiring any alternative approaches to ensure that beneficiaries can obtain contraceptives at no cost.2,3
[Full Text]


Stahl RY, Lynch HF. Contraceptive Coverage and the Balance Between Conscience and Access. JAMA. Published online October 19, 2017. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.17086

The Hidden Professions of Conscientious Objection

Bob Parke*

Federal legislation permitting the killing of people who meet the criteria for Medical assistance in dying (MAiD) has challenged most healthcare professionals to carefully consider where they morally stand on causing someone’s death. While many healthcare providers may feel it is against their values to participate in euthanasia, we have all been asked or will be asked at some point about euthanasia by a patient or their family. . . .  In general, frontline conscientious objectors have been respected and accommodated. But, what about those behind the scenes? . . .[Full text]

Dignitarian medical ethics

Linda Barclay

Abstract

Philosophers and bioethicists are typically sceptical about invocations of dignity in ethical debates. Many believe that dignity is essentially devoid of meaning: either a mere rhetorical gesture used in the absence of good argument or a faddish term for existing values like autonomy and respect. On the other hand, the patient experience of dignity is a substantial area of research in healthcare fields like nursing and palliative care. In this paper, it is argued that philosophers have much to learn from the concrete patient experiences described in healthcare literature. Dignity is conferred on people when they are treated as having equal status, something the sick and frail are often denied in healthcare settings. The importance of equal status as a unique value has been forcefully argued and widely recognised in political philosophy in the last 15 years. This paper brings medical ethics up to date with philosophical discussion about the value of equal status by developing an equal status conception of dignity.


Barclay L. Dignitarian medical ethics. Journal of Medical Ethics Published Online First: 13 October 2017. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2017-104467

Health professionals’ pledge rejects any form of participation in or condoning torture

Sean Murphy*

Physicians for Human Rights is sponsoring a Health Professionals’ Pledge Against Torture that includes statements that signatories will never “participate or condone” torture and support colleagues who “resist orders to torture or inflict harm.”  It also commits signatories to insist that their professional associations support those facing pressure “to participate or condone torture and ill-treatment.”

What is noteworthy is that the pledge is not limited to simply refusing to torture someone, but is a pledge against participation (which would include forms of facilitation like referral) and against condoning the practice.

Replace “torture” with commonly morally contested procedures and it becomes obvious that the ethical position taken by Physicians for Human Rights vis-à-vis torture is identical to the position of many health care professionals who object to practices like euthanasia or abortion for reasons of conscience.