EU euthanasia report flawed

  • November 2, 2005
TORONTO - All the favourite arguments for euthanasia are on display in the latest attempt in Europe to jettison bans on allowing doctors to legally put someone to death, says one of North America's top bioethicists. And they can all be countered by solid reasoning.
Dr. John Keown, who holds the Rose F. Kennedy Chair in Christian Ethics at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, used his lecture March 4 to the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute to describe an attempt to get the Council of Europe to back euthanasia. He ran through the arguments found in the so-called Marty Report which advocated decriminalizing euthanasia - and found them wanting.

Keown, who holds a doctorate from Oxford University, has become widely known as an expert on euthanasia. He has written or edited several books on the subject and his research has been cited by such bodies as the U.S. Supreme Court, the English Court of Appeal and the British House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics. He was asked to give the Cardinal Ambrozic Lecture Series talk at the University of St. Michael's College.

Keown began his talk by noting that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (a larger body than the European Union) passed a resolution in 1999 urging member states to uphold the laws banning euthanasia. However, since then, he explained, this group's social, health and family affairs committee had produced a report, known as the Marty Report (after the committee's rapporteur Dick Marty), which called for legalizing the practice. The report, first issued in September 2003, was sent back to the committee for revisions but has since been re-released and awaits a vote by the assembly.

"The report is flawed, not least because it repeatedly overstates the arguments for legalization and downplays or ignores the arguments against," Keown said.

Keown noted, for instance, that the report argued that because so many doctors are already secretly euthanizing terminally ill or chronically ill patients, or helping them to commit suicide, then the law needs to be rewritten to take into account modern medical practice and societal attitudes towards suicide and death.

But Keown said that recent surveys suggest the illegal practice isn't as widespread as thought. Though a British survey cited by the Marty Report said some 32 per cent of doctors surveyed said they had helped in "active or passive" euthanasia, other surveys showed a much smaller percentage: four per cent in a poll commissioned by the BBC and six per cent in a similar U.S. poll.

In any event, he added, does it make sense to change a law because some people refuse to obey it?

"Many criminal laws are regularly broken," he said. "Some prohibitions, such as the law against possessing hard drugs, are frequently breached without detection but it does not follow that the law should therefore be relaxed to accommodate those who snort coke."

Keown also pointed out that relaxing the prohibition on euthanasia won't necessarily mean that doctors will begin obeying the law. The case of the Netherlands - cited approvingly by the Marty Report - actually shows that relaxing the law has not prevented "thousands of Dutch patients (from being) intentionally killed without request," even though the law requires that patients persistently ask for euthanasia.

In fact, Keown said, the Dutch example is prime evidence that even a law that purports to provide "strict and transparent" rules and "close monitoring" can actually lead to a slippery slope in which society begins to countenance killing people for reasons far beyond the fact that they are terminally ill or in extreme pain.

Keown pointed out that two Dutch courts have held it lawful for doctors to give lethal injections to babies. Currently, he added, "Dutch doctors are drafting protocols for euthanizing children under 12 (which is the minimum age specified in the present legislation) and members of Parliament from the ruling party in Belgium have introduced a bill which would extend euthanasia to minors." Meanwhile, a former Dutch health minister has advocated giving suicide pills to the elderly who are simply tired of living.

"As this trend confirms, once the rhetorical mask of autonomy is stripped away, the true face of euthanasia is revealed: the judgment that certain patients are better off dead," Keown said.

Such presumptions run counter to Christian understanding of the human being as worthy of dignity and protection as a creation in the image of God. Instead, they depict life in utilitarian terms as "those whose lives are worth living or those who are better off dead."

'What signal, moreover, would that send out to the sick, the elderly, the disabled and the dying?" he asked.

Keown urged those present to educate themselves so that they have a clear understanding of the arguments made in favour of euthanasia and know how to counter them effectively.

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