Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide

Podcast and Event Summary: New St Cross Special Ethics Seminar: Medically Assisted Dying in Canada: from where we’ve come; to where we’re heading, presented by Professor Arthur Schafer (Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, University of Manitoba)

Written by: Dr Amna Whiston

In this seminar (available on podcast), Professor Arthur Schafer discussed the ethical challenges involved in the Canadian euthanasia debate at the New St Cross Special Ethics Seminar (online). Professor Schafer, who has written extensively over the last thirty years about a range of topics that includes professional and bio-medical ethics, having been a long-standing proponent of the view that allowing people to die with dignity enriches our rights as humans, critically addressed the question of whether Canada is currently heading in the right direction regarding the legalization of medical assistance in dying.

Autonomy, as Professor Schafer reminds us, is one of the core Canadian values, and this is reflected through the public battle against the prohibition of assisted suicide.  Back in 1993, (Rodriguez v. British Columbia [Attorney General]), the majority of the Supreme Court of Canada urged that at that time there was no public consensus among Canadians that the autonomy interest of people wishing to end their lives is paramount to the state interest in protecting the lives of its citizens. In recent years, Canadian public opinion has undergone a significant shift in favour of the autonomy interest of irredeemably suffering patients who, with no hope of recovery, wish to end their lives with dignity. In June 2016 the Canadian Parliament passed a legislation bill legalizing medical assistance in dying, which has now become legally permissible in several American states (Oregon, Washington State and Montana) and in a number of European nations (the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxemburg). Today more than two-thirds of Canadians support the new legislation which makes it legally permissible for doctors to help the terminally ill to end their lives. This fact, nonetheless, leaves open a more general question (beyond the Canada context) of whether constitutional rights should be settled by opinion poll.

Continue reading

We’re All Vitalists Now

By Charles Foster

It has been a terrible few months for moral philosophers – and for utilitarians in particular. Their relevance to public discourse has never been greater, but never have their analyses been so humiliatingly sidelined by policy makers across the world. The world’s governments are all, it seems, ruled by a rather crude vitalism. Livelihoods and freedoms give way easily to a statistically small risk of individual death.

That might or might not be the morally right result. I’m not considering here the appropriateness of any government measures, and simply note that whatever one says about the UK Government’s response, it has been supremely successful in generating fear. Presumably that was its intention. The fear in the eyes above the masks is mainly an atavistic terror of personal extinction – a fear unmitigated by rational risk assessment. There is also a genuine fear for others (and the crisis has shown humans at their most splendidly altruistic and communitarian as well). But we really don’t have much ballast.

The fear is likely to endure long after the virus itself has receded. Even if we eventually pluck up the courage to hug our friends or go to the theatre, the fear has shown us what we’re really like, and the unflattering picture will be hard to forget.

I wonder what this new view of ourselves will mean for some of the big debates in ethics and law? The obvious examples are euthanasia and assisted suicide. Continue reading

Abolish Medical Ethics

Written by Charles Foster

In a recent blog post on this site Dom Wilkinson, writing about the case of Vincent Lambert, said this:

If, as is claimed by Vincent’s wife, Vincent would not have wished to remain alive, then the wishes of his parents, of other doctors or of the Pope, are irrelevant. My views or your views on the matter, likewise, are of no consequence. Only Vincent’s wishes matter. And so life support must stop.’

The post was (as everything Dom writes is), completely coherent and beautifully expressed. I say nothing here about my agreement or otherwise with his view – which is comfortably in accord with the zeitgeist, at least in the academy. My purpose is only to point out that if he is right, there is no conceivable justification for a department of medical ethics. Dom is arguing himself out of a job. Continue reading

Withdrawing Life Support: Only One Person’s View Matters

Dominic Wilkinson, University of Oxford

Shortly before Frenchman Vincent Lambert’s life support was due to be removed, doctors at Sebastopol Hospital in Reims, France, were ordered to stop. An appeal court ruled that life support must continue.

Lambert was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident in 2008 and has been diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state. Since 2014, his case has been heard many times in French and European courts.

His wife, who is his legal guardian, wishes artificial nutrition and hydration to be stopped and Vincent to be allowed to die. His parents are opposed to this. On Monday, May 20, the parents succeeded in a last-minute legal appeal to stop Vincent’s doctors from withdrawing feeding, pending a review by a UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Lambert’s case is the latest example of disputed treatment for adult patients with profound brain injury. The case has obvious parallels with that of Terri Schiavo, in the US who died in 2005 following seven years of legal battles. And there have been other similar high-profile cases over more than 40 years, including Elena Englaro (Italy, court cases 1999-2008), Tony Bland (UK 1993) Nancy Cruzan (US 1988-90) and Karen Ann Quinlan (US 1975-76). Continue reading

Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Law isn’t on a Slippery Slope

By David Copolov and Julian Savulescu 

This week the Australian Senate will debate a private members’ bill that will consider whether to overturn the 21-year-old Euthanasia Laws Act that nullified the ability of Australian self-governing territories to pass legislation in relation to euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The deliberation on whether to continue the arbitrary over-riding of the territories’ legislative autonomy in this domain will inevitably also turn a spotlight on the judiciousness of Victoria’s recent voluntary assisted dying legislation that empowers terminally ill people who are residents of our state and who are experiencing unrelievable suffering, to end their lives on their own terms.

Standing firmly and resolutely against such legislation is Professor Margaret Somerville, from the University of Notre Dame, who was interestingly described in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald two days ago as having “spent decades observing euthanasia in Canada”, even though medically assisted dying only became legal in that country in 2016.

One of the concerns she has raised is the “slippery slope” to unethical assistance in dying. Currently, this might well be on people’s minds because of the reports of the deaths of three minors during 2016-2017 as the result of euthanasia in Belgium, out of 4337 deaths during that period. The deaths of the under-18-year-olds occurred as a result of the removal of age limits on access to euthanasia in Belgium that took place as a result of legislation introduced in 2014, 12 years after the introduction of euthanasia for adults.

In contrast to Belgium (which is the only jurisdiction that places no age restrictions on euthanasia or assisted dying), the Victorian Parliament passed the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act in November last year, which limits voluntary assisted dying (VAD) to terminally ill people 18 years and older, who fulfil very strict criteria in relation to experiencing unrelievable suffering and possessing sufficient decision-making capabilities. They must be in the last six months of life, unless they’re suffering from a neurodegenerative disease, in which case they must be in the last 12 months of life.

There are many reasons that both the Victorian Legislative Council’s Inquiry into end of life choices and the Ministerial Advisory Panel on Voluntary Assisted Dying recommended limiting VAD to adults, including the fact that the extensive consultations with the Victorian public led to the firm conclusion that, as stated in the inquiry’s final report: “Victorian values do not support allowing assisted dying to be provided to those who are yet to reach adulthood.”

Continue reading

UK Supreme Court Decision Means Patients No Longer Forced to Live

By Mackenzie Graham

On July 30, The UK’s Supreme Court ruled that there is no requirement to obtain court approval before withdrawing clinically assisted nutrition and hydration (CANH), when there is agreement between physicians and the family that this is in the best interests of the patient.

In the judgement, Lady Black writes:

“If the provisions of the MCA [Mental Capacity Act] 2005 are followed and the relevant guidance observed, and if there is agreement upon what is in the best interests of the patient, the patient may be treated in accordance with that agreement without application to the court.”

Until now, requests to withdraw CANH needed to be heard by the Court of Protection to determine if withdrawing treatment was in the patient’s best interest. In addition to being emotionally difficult for families, this is a time-consuming and expensive process, and often results in the patient dying before a judgement is rendered.

I think this decision has much to be said in its favour. First, it means that when there is agreement that continued treatment is no longer in the best interests of a patient with a prolonged disorder of consciousness, these patients are no longer being ‘forced to live’ until the Court affirms that being allowed to die is in their best interests. In many cases, court decisions take months, meaning that a patient is forced to be kept alive, against their best interests and the wishes of their family. Making the decision to withdraw care from a loved one is highly distressing, and this is likely further compounded by the burden and distraction of court proceedings.

Continue reading

‘Being a burden’: an Illegitimate Ground For Assisted Dying

The issue of the legality in England and Wales of physician-assisted suicide has recently been revisited by the Divisional Court. Judgment is awaited. The judgment of the Court of Appeal, granting permission for judicial review, is here.

The basic issue before the Court of Appeal was the same as that in Nicklinson v Ministry of Justice and R (Purdy) v DPP: does the right to determine how one lives one’s private life (protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights)  confer a right to have an assisted death?

Many factors have been said to be relevant to decisions about assisted dying. They include intractable pain (rather a weak criterion, given modern palliative methods), hopeless prognosis – likely to result in death in a short time –  and simple autonomy (‘It’s my right to determine where, when, and in what circumstances I end my life, and that’s an end of the matter’). One factor, commonly in the minds of patients asking for help in ending their lives, but rarely mentioned by advocates of assisted dying, is that the patient feels that she is a burden to her family and carers. Continue reading

Veterinarians and the best interests of animals

By Charles Foster

English law has traditionally, for most purposes, regarded animals as mere chattels. There is now animal welfare legislation which seeks to prevent or limit animal suffering, but provided that legislation is complied with, and that no other relevant laws (eg those related to public health) are broken, you are free to do what you want with your animal.

Veterinary surgeons are in an interesting position. The UK regulatory body for veterinarians, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (‘RCVS’) publishes a Code of Professional Conduct. This provides, inter alia:

‘1.1  Veterinary surgeons must make animal health and welfare their first consideration when attending to animals.’

‘2.2  Veterinary surgeons must provide independent and impartial advice and inform a client of any conflict of interest.’ 

‘First consideration’ in 1.1 is a rather weasly formulation. Does it mean that it is the overriding consideration, trumping all others, however weighty those others might be? Or the one that veterinarians ought to consider first, before moving on to other criteria which might well prevail? Continue reading

Assisted Dying and Protecting the Vulnerable

Sadly, though unsurprisingly, Rob Marris’s assisted dying bill has been rejected overwhelmingly by British MPs.

The most widely accepted argument in favour of rejecting the bill seems to have been that doing so would protect the vulnerable. Continue reading

Relaxed about dying?

“Now we must wait, wait. These hours…. The gurgling starts again — but how slowly a man dies! …By noon I am groping on the outer limits of reason. …every gasp lays my heart bare.” Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

In Remarque’s novel, the agony of the German soldier, witnessing the slow death of an enemy combatant, is heightened by his own guilt (the narrator had stabbed another soldier in self defense). However, his powerful evocation of distress (and guilt) at witnessing a slow dying is very close to the expressed concerns of parents and clinicians who are watching the death of a child.

Continue reading

Authors

Affiliations