ROME, JULY 17, 2011
Euthanasia advocates continue to press their case in spite of suffering several recent defeats, including a January vote in the French Senate against a proposal to legalize euthanasia.
This loss and other setbacks have not stopped the pressure, as attorney Hugh Scher warned in his address to the Third International Symposium on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide held in Vancouver, Canada.
On June 4, Scher, who is the legal counsel for the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, spoke about some of the court cases in Canada, the B.C. Catholic reported, June 16.
Currently the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and the Carter family are pursuing legal action, arguing that preventing assisted suicide is an infringement on rights and so is unconstitutional. Their hope, said Sher, is to eventually take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Shortly after his words, Canada's pro-life forces won a victory in the Ontario Court of Appeal when the court said doctors at Sunnybrook Health Services Centre could not unilaterally cease life support for a patient, the Star newspaper reported, June 29.
The doctors of Hassan Rasouli, who is in a vegetative state, wanted to stop ventilation and feeding against the family's wishes.
The court ruled that in such cases doctors need to have the approval of a provincial medical board before being able to override the wishes of a family.
The United States is also the scene of numerous struggles over euthanasia. An article in the March 27 edition of the National Catholic Register pointed out that in the recent past debates on euthanasia had taken place in the legislatures of Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Since then in Oregon, where physician-assisted suicides are legal, suicide kits have been banned. Governor John Kitzhaber signed the bill outlawing kits that were seen as encouraging people to take their own lives, the Register Guard newspaper reported on June 29.
England is also the scene of a vigorous dispute over euthanasia. In June the BBC broadcast a documentary made by author Terry Pratchett. He suffers from Alzheimer's disease and has been campaigning for a change in the law regarding assisted suicide.
The film recounted the situation of Peter Smedley, who had motor neuron disease, as he went to Switzerland to die at the offices of the Dignitas organization. The ex-bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir Ali, said it "glorified suicide," the BBC reported June 14.
A June 19 review of the documentary by Robert Epstein noted that the same night it was broadcast, the BBC received 898 complaints about it.
The program comes at a time when a privately sponsored commission -- the Commission on Assisted Dying -- is holding an inquiry into assisted suicide.
It is headed by a former lord chancellor, Lord Falconer. Funding comes from Terry Pratchett and businessman Bernard Lewis, the Guardian newspaper reported last Nov. 30.
Critics have pointed out that it is hardly likely to be impartial, given Pratchett's involvement as an active campaigner in favor of assisted suicide.
This doubt was reinforced by subsequent events. George Pitcher, an Anglican priest who has a blog on the Telegraph newspaper Web site, commented on a radio program that interviewed Lord Falconer.
In his June 26 post Pitcher noted that Lord Falconer was forced to admit that nine out of the 12 commission members were on public record as having declared themselves in favor of a change in assisted suicide laws.
Shortly afterward a motion was passed at the British Medical Association's (BMA) annual meeting that criticized the commission for being unbalanced.
According to a July 6 report by the Christian Institute the motion states that a significant majority of the commission's members are in favor of assisted suicide.
The BMA's position reflects the fact that a majority of doctors are opposed to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. An article published March 9 by Science Daily revealed that a review of research carried out over the last 20 years shows that UK doctors are consistently not in favor of assisted suicide.
The study was carried out by Dr. Ruaidhrí McCormack, Dr. M Clifford and Dr. M Conroy at the Department of Palliative Medicine, Milford Care Centre, Limerick, Ireland. They looked at 16 studies published in the period 1990-2010.
This medical opposition to assisted suicide received support in an article published in the journal Current Oncology. "Legalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide: the illusion of safeguards and controls," by J. Pereira was in the Vol. 18, n. 2 edition.
Pereira looked at the experience with the legal safeguards in the European countries that have legalized euthanasia -- Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg. Pereira, who is involved in palliative care in Ottawa, Canada, found that in many cases the safeguards were ineffective or ignored. He also examined the situation in the American state of Oregon.
In Holland in 2005 more than 560 people were killed without having given explicit consent. This means that for every five people euthanized, one was euthanized without having given explicit consent, which is required by law. Pereira also commented that in spite of this breach, attempts to bring such cases to trial have failed.
This, he said, provides "evidence that the judicial system has become more tolerant over time of such transgressions."
The situation is even worse in Belgium. Pereira cited a recent study that examined the Flemish part of Belgium. There were 66 out of 208 cases of euthanasia, a rate of 32%, that took place without the request or consent of the patient.
The most common reason for doing this was that the person was in a coma or had dementia.
He also found defects when it comes to the mandatory reporting of cases of assisted suicide. In Belgium, Pereira found that nearly half of all cases are not reported. Not surprisingly he also discovered that legal requirements were more frequently not complied with in those cases that went unreported.
The laws also stipulate that the act of assisted suicide be performed only by a doctor. Nevertheless a study in Flanders showed that out of 120 nurses who were caring for assisted suicide patients, 12% performed the euthanasia. It rose to 45% in those cases that were performed without consent.
It is also mandated that there should be a consultation by a second doctor. And in Belgium a third physician needs to review the case if the person is non-terminal. According to Pereira there is evidence from Belgium, Holland and Oregon that this is not universally applied.
Pereira also recounted how the restrictions have been progressively loosened over the years. When advocates started pushing for the legalization of euthanasia in Holland they said it would be for a small number of cases who were in unbearable suffering.
By 2006 the Royal Dutch Medical Association declared that euthanasia should be open for all over the age of 70 and tired of living. More evidence of a slippery slope came with the decision to allow euthanasia from the age of 12 onward, whereas previously it was limited to adults.
"Seriously ill people do not need euthanasia," said Nicholas Tonti-Filippini in an article published July 5 in Australia's Age newspaper. What people need is better palliative care, he said.
Tonti-Filippini, associate dean at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, explained he is no stranger to suffering and pain as he has an autoimmune illness and is chronically sick.
"Far from protecting the dignity of those who are seriously ill and suffering, a euthanasia law would undermine dignity by undermining our sense of individual worth, no matter our suffering and disability," he argued. Words to keep in mind as the debate continues.