Friday, 26 April 2013

Australia 21 think tank recommends legislative change on euthanasia & assisted suicide

Straight from the 'I-could-have-told-you-so' files, the think tank, Australia21, released its report and recommendations following their 'round table' discussions held in January this year.

The January 'round table' convened around a discussion paper entitled: How should Australia regulate voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide?

I was invited to attend this 'round table' event. However, on reviewing the discussion paper, I noted a number of glaring problems, both in what was included and what was omitted and, ultimately, declined. 

For example, the paper made a great deal out of the The Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel: End-of-Life Decision Making – November 2011The UK Commission on Assisted Dying Report (aka Lord Falconer’s Report on Assisted Dying) January 2012 and the Government of Quebec Select Committee on Dying with Dignity Report March 2012. All of these reports have been roundly criticised for their approach, their lack of consideration of relevant studies and also the rank dismissal of concerns about vulnerable people. 

(The detail of much of these problems is dealt with in detail in Alex Schadenberg's book: Exposing Vulnerable People to Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide).

The Australia21 background paper, like its antecedents (above) did not consider the research from Belgium that, among other problems, identified that, within the number of euthanasia deaths that occurred in 2007, and within the number of unreported cases (a staggering 47.2% in the Flanders region) there was clear evidence that vulnerable people were being abused, that doctors were clearly operating outside the stated protocols and that nurses were also delivering lethal doses (not allowed under Belgian law.)

I raised this concern, and others with Australia 21 who, after a number of cordial email exchanges (and after refusing to include this data or to revise the background paper) made the concession that I could itemize these problems and provide copies at the round table. To me, this was no concession at all: if the round table went ahead based entirely on a biased discussion paper and given, as I now observe, that the numbers of participants would likely favour change, I could see no point in adding my name to any report.

'Garbage in - garbage out' as the saying goes. I was hardly surprised when the report released today recommends change.

There is much in this report which deserves scrutiny. In light of the data on Belgium mentioned above and the fact that I made Australia 21 aware of it (just in case they were genuinely ignorant of the studies - as might have been the case given their reliance on the reports mentioned) I find it difficult to reconcile how they could make the following statement:

"...there is now a large body of experience (note: not evidence) in a number of international jurisdictions following the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia and/or assisted suicide...shows that appropriate safeguards can be implemented..."

or this:

"There is no convincing evidence that the legalisation of euthanasia and/or assisted suicide in the Netherlands and Oregon has caused any significant societal harm." (quoting Dr Charles Douglas - a round table attendee)

At least Dr Douglas does not dismiss that there might be evidence - it's just that he's not convinced by it (indeed, if he, likewise, is aware of it).

The report does, to its credit, itemize accurately the case against legislative change (albeit without reference to any source documents, in the main). Interestingly, given that the case against is, in part at least, a summary of comments from the round table participants who oppose change, it goes on to add a fifth issue that it acknowledges was not raised by participants; namely: religious belief and opposition.

It does this so as to create a strawman. In a summary page entitled: There is no compelling reason to resist change, the report's authors repeat the assertion that there is no evidence that vulnerable people are not at risk and then go to demolish the religious argument that they postulated themselves.

If those attending the round table saw no reason to raise religion, why did the authors?

Emeritus Professor and current Senior Australian of the year, Ian Maddocks AM was a participant at the round table event. The report quotes him as saying that he is, 'clearly in favour of decriminalisation of assisted death,' adding a caveat, 'but I worry about euthanasia being regarded as a 'quick fix''. 

I find this slightly confusing, in as much as the professor is also quoted in today's Brisbane Times as having said that: said while he did not want to see doctors jailed for helping their patients die, he did not want to see voluntary euthanasia legalised.

Prof Ian Maddocks AM
The article quoted a slightly different take on Maddocks' 'quick fix' comments that put them in a slightly different light:
''I don't want to see palliative care bypassed in a sense by having legislation that will allow quick death for somebody. I think that's bad for people,'' he said.
''It's the quick fix that I'm really worried about because I think people will miss out, and I think families will miss out, because you see some lovely things happen as a family looks after a person who is dying.''
Of course, no social change agenda would be complete without the 'its-happening-already-so-we-need-to-bring-it-out-in-the-open-and-regulate-it' argument. This is a tired old shibboleth devoid of any real gravitas. If it is already occurring; that is to say - if doctors are currently killing patients, then those who know about such actions should be reporting them to the authorities. We don't simply abandon our laws just because they're being broken - this is a recipe for anarchy!

The timing of the release of this paper seems intentionally connected to other related matters. NSW MLC Cate Faerhmann will shortly open debate on her euthanasia bill in the NSW upper house. Ms Faerhmann will resign from that parliament mid-year to take up her candidacy for the Senate in the September Federal Election. With the Council On The Aging's spokesperson recently suggesting that the Federal Parliament should legislate in this area and with Senator and sponsor of a senate bill to overturn the Euthanasia Laws Act, Senator Di Natale, taking part in the Australia21 launch today in Canberra, I think we can assume that there will be an attempt to make euthanasia an issue for September 14.


  1. Charles Douglas14 May 2013 at 14:13

    Dear Paul,

    Thanks for your patronising reference to me in the body of this article. You're attacking the wrong person. Firstly, I am an academic, and I recently finished my PhD on the topic of end-of-life decision-making, and yes, I am aware of the evidence. Secondly, I am agnostic about the benefits of legislative change. Unlike yourself, I am not committed to a pro or anti euthanasia viewpoint, and unlike yourself, I did turn up to the 'Roundtable' to try to provide some real information and some real balance. I don't necessarily agree with everything in the Australia 21 report. But if you and your readers are genuinely interested in the link or lack thereof between legislation and harm (rather than just looking for evidence to support your prior commitments) I suggest that you post on this website a paper by Penney Lewis from 2007, entitled "The Empirical Slippery Slope
    from Voluntary to Non-Voluntary Euthanasia"

    Kind regards

    Charles Douglas

  2. Dear Dr Douglas,
    I had no intention of patronising you or anyone else in this report. You say you are agnostic about the benefits and I accept that, however, I do not, as you suggest, look for evidence that fits my prior commitments. I read everything I can on the subject. The research I raised with the chair was missing from the background paper. Not only was it missing, but there was nothing of any substance included so as to give any representation in an empirical way of the risk to vulnerable people - a glaring omission and one that should have been addressed. This is made all the more problematic by the conclusion in that and the final report that the risk does not exist.
    This is reckless indifference to the question and one, which appears to me to be directing the project to a pre-directed conclusion.
    If you're happy to be part of that, then that's your business, but The slant on both papers cannot be simply dismissed because of your personal position and integrity.
    If anyone's being patronised here it is the Australian public and our MPs.