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November
22
  3:05:00 PM

Pope condemns euthanasia, calls for a new ‘human ecology’

Pope Francis has condemned euthanasia, calling it “a sin against God the creator”. The Roman Pontiff made the statement in an address to the Association of Italian Catholic Doctors . The Pope – who may be the single most influential bioethical voice in the world -- criticised the logic of what he termed “false compassion”. He also applied the notion to arguments for abortion and IVF.

“The dominant thinking sometimes suggests a ‘false compassion’, that which believes that it is: helpful to women to promote abortion; an act of dignity to obtain euthanasia; a scientific breakthrough to ‘produce’ a child and to consider it to be a right rather than a gift to welcome”.

Summarising his scepticism about contemporary trends, the Pope said: 

“We are living in a time of experimentation with life. But a bad experiment. Making children rather than accepting them as a gift, as I said. Playing with life.”

In another recent address, Francis stressed the need to promote what he calls a new “human ecology”. This relatively novel idea draws together the Zeitgeist of the environmentalist movement with the natural law ethos of Catholic bioethics. The Pope is set to release a statement (possibly an encyclical) next year on “human ecology”, and the United Nations has suggested it will support the document.

The new publication is bound to be controversial. The idea of “human ecology” has its roots in Benedict XVI’s understanding of male-female complementarity, and the unethical nature of artificial reproductive methods.  

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November
22
  2:50:00 PM

Why discriminate with euthanasia?

An Australian academic has prompted spirited debate after suggesting that denying euthanasia to the mentally ill could be a form of unjust discrimination. 

In a recent article in The Conversation, Dr Sascha Callaghan of the University of New South Wales suggested that mental illness in itself may be insufficient grounds to deny an individual euthanasia: 

“The idea that euthanasia should not be offered for mental suffering is not universally agreed, and requires some further consideration… too stringent an approach risks locking people with mental illnesses out of the right to make decisions about the end of their lives – and this might be discriminatory.”

Callaghan referred to a case in the UK in 2012 in which a court ruled that an anorexic woman be force-fed despite her request that the treatment stop. “The implication of the decision was that, by definition, people with anorexia cannot make an end-of-life decision, no matter how harrowing and intractable their illness becomes.”

Whilst not committing to a particular viewpoint on the issue, Callaghan concludes that “certainly there are a range of defensible views on what is a good life and when assisted dying is acceptable.”

The Australian Medical Association recently suspended the medical license of euthanasia advocate Phillip Nitzchke, after he failed to dissuade a mentally ill man, 45-year-old Nigel Brayley, from taking his own life with a lethal barbiturate. 

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November
22
  2:40:00 PM

US Navy nurse investigated for refusing to force-feed prisoners

A US Navy nurse may be discharged after refusing to force-feed prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. The nurse, who has served in the Navy for over 18 years, used to participate but eventually concluded that it was “unethical”.

The US military’s preferred method of force-feeding involves inserting a tube through a detainee’s nostrils and into his stomach. The nurse changed his attitude to the procedure after seeing how much they resisted.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) recently released an open letter to Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and the director of the Navy Nurse Corps, requesting that the nurse not be punished. The ANA invoked the ethical right of a nurse to “make an independent judgment about whether he or she should participate in this or any other such activity”. The Navy has not responded.  

The World Medical Association has condemned force-feeding, and this week the lobby group Physicians for Human Rights declared its support for the nurse. “Nurses, like physicians, have professional duties to respect the autonomous decisions of their patients and never participate in ill-treatment or torture,” said Dr Vincent Iacopino, PHR’s senior medical advisor. 

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November
22
  1:20:00 PM

The rise of the transhumanist movement

Whatever you think of transhumanism, one thing is quite certain: the transhumanist movement is alive, healthy and growing. In any ordinary week in the world of bioethics, several articles will be published exploring one aspect or other of transhumanism.

Consider, for example, Zoltan Istvan, best-selling author and self-proclaimed “transhumanist visionary”. Istvan has published 20 articles this year in the Huffington Post on transhumanism. He recently announced that he intends to run as a representative of the Transhumanist Party in the 2016 US presidential elections.

There is also a fully-fledged international transhumanist society, Humanity +. The organisation, founded in 1998, runs seminars around the world to discuss the latest developments in human enhancement technologies. The also organisation publish the online quarterly Humanity + magazine, a publication dedicated to discussing transhumanist news and ideas.

In a recent blog post, Wesley Smith argued that the transhumanist vision was a mere ‘utopian fantasy land’. A small army of transhumanist supporters came to the support of the movement, commenting extensively on the article and criticising Smith’s argument. 

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November
15
  11:40:00 PM

Disabled girl allowed to die of dehydration in UK

Nancy Fitzmaurice and her mother Charlotte   

How illegal are euthanasia and assisted suicide in England? The recent tragic case of Nancy Fitzmaurice suggests that judges are willing to make exceptions to the law.

Nancy was a 12-year-old girl with severe disabilities. Born in 2002 with a streptococcus infection, she was blind, had hydrocephaly and was unable to talk, walk, eat or drink.

Her mother, Charlotte Fitzmaurice, gave up her job as a a nurse and became a full-time carer. Nancy only reached a developmental age of about 6 months, but she was reasonably healthy and had defied predictions that she would only live to the age of 4.

However, two years ago a routine operation for kidney stones went wrong. Nancy was in round-the-clock untreatable pain, to the great distress of Ms Fitzmaurice and her partner.

With the support of London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, she applied to have Nancy euthanased by withdrawing nutrition and hydration. The matter went to the Justice Eleanor King, of the High Court, who ruled on August 7 that it was in the mother and daughter’s best interests to withdraw food and fluids. “In her own closed world [Nancy] has had some quality of life. Sadly that is not the case now,” she said. It was the first time that a child who was not terminally ill and was not on life support was permitted to die in this way.

Nancy died on August 21 after great suffering. “The last day was the hardest of my life. It was absolutely horrifying,” Ms Fitzmaurice told the Daily Mail.

The case was not widely reported, but the policy followed by the hospital and approved by the judge had severe critics. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, an American group, described it as killing a disabled person.

“Euthanasia of people with disabilities is an extremely dangerous and wholly inappropriate solution to inadequate pain management. In cases where painkillers are insufficient, a number of alternatives for pain management exist. A policy of euthanasia targets vulnerable people, particularly when it is applied to children. People with disabilities who experience chronic pain should have same access as others to life-sustaining medical treatment.”

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan, of NYU Langone Medical Center, was guarded in his assessment, but told The Daily Beast that he would have preferred to increase the level of sedation rather than allow the girl to die of thirst. 

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November
15
  11:33:00 PM

Nitschke battles to keep his registration

Philip Nitschke in Darwin / SMH    

There is a plethora of films about euthanasia and assisted suicide, but possibly none which takes place in a courtroom. However, a courtroom in the sweltering far north of Australia might provide an excellent script for an updated version of Inherit the Wind, pitting enlightened progressives against backwoods conservatives. 

The progressive would be Philip Nitschke, one of the world’s best-known euthanasia activists. He has been battling to retain his medical registration before Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal. His lawyer, Henry Nugent, is terminally ill with colon cancer and ardently supports supported Nitschke’s cause.

Representing the antediluvian Medical Board of Australia is barrister Lisa Chapman. The MBA regards Nitschke as a public danger.

The trigger for the hearing was a police investigation of the death of 45-year-old Perth man Nigel Brayley. He was a fan of Nitschke’s work and committed suicide with Nembutal, Nitschke’s drug of choice. Unfortunately for Nitschke, it turned out that Brayley was being investigated for murdering one, possibly, two wives. He may have been depressed; he certainly evaded justice. If Nitschke’s cavalier response to Brayley’s request for information is not enough for the MBA to deregister him, there are 11 other complaints about how he practices as a doctor.

Nitschke tried to turn the hearing into a trial of the notion of rational suicide. "I am arguing that every rational adult has the right to determine what they do with their own body... and that may include ending their own lives,” he told the ABC. “The medical profession should keep out of it; they are not a body that should be controlling options that rational adults take.”

Ms Chapman refused to broaden the scope of the hearing. “This is not a debate about voluntary euthanasia," she said. "It is not a debate about rational suicide. This is a very precisely focused interim hearing regarding Mr Nitschke's conduct into the death of a man. He obtained scant information about Mr Brayley before he died."

The debate is also about the extent of a doctor’s professional commitment. Nitschke supports a transactional relationship in which he is a doctor only when a person approaches as a doctor. Ms Chapman supports a vocational understanding. "You can't say that today I'm going to be a registered medical practitioner but tomorrow I'm not going to be," she said. "It's not a matter of saying I'm going to decide when I wear that hat. The legislative scheme is that you wear that hat all the time."

Nitschke, who spends most of his time nowadays in his work as the head of Exit International, an assisted suicide and euthanasia lobby group, sounds fatalistic about losing his credentials as a doctor. "I wish I had never met Nigel Brayley, frankly, given the amount of damage that brief encounter has done to me and the time and energy and money that it's consumed," he says. 

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November
15
  11:26:00 PM

Swiss canton forces nursing homes to host assisted suicides

touring Neuchâtel     

The legislature of the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel has voted overwhelmingly to force government-funded nursing homes to allow representatives of assisted suicide groups to advertise their services.

(Neuchâtel is in the west of Switzerland, bordering on France, and is predominantly French-speaking.)

There are no exemptions for conscientious objection by managers in the homes. The only critierion, according to Swiss.info, is the personal choice of the patients. Personal autonomy must take precedence over the rules of the nursing homes. About 60 institutions will be affected by the decision.

The new regulations specify that nursing home personnel will not be allowed to interfere if a patient chooses to die. In fact, they are required to set aside a room where the staff of the assisted suicide organisation Exit will help the person to die. 

The law establishes some conditions for such procedures. The disease or condition must be serious and incurable and other end-of-life options must be discussed. If the nursing home refuses to cooperate, the patient can complain to the authorities. Only homes which do not accept government funding will be allowed to close their doors to Exit.

Exit (whose full name is Exit ADMD Suisse Romande) caters for French-speaking Swiss. Another group, called simply Exit, caters for German-speakers. Last year the French Exit began to offer its services to elderly people who did not have a terminal illness but wished to die. According to one report, it helped 155 people to die last year, and its German counterpart 459. Apparently nursing homes in the German cantons are far more amenable to visits by Exit. 

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November
15
  11:17:00 PM

Stunning video reveals mystical strain in Swiss assisted suicide

Here is a video which is essential viewing for anyone interested in how Swiss assisted suicide groups work. Exit - Le Droit De Mourir (Exit: the right to die) is a prize-winning 2006 documentary. Unavailable until now, it was recently posted on YouTube.

The director, Fernand Melgar, spent two years filming the work of the Francophone group Exit. He shows an annual general meeting, secretaries answering phone queries, a conference of Exit societies in Japan, a board meeting and discussions with clients. Most astonishing of all, he films the last moments of a woman who chose to die on January 22.

The photography and editing are breath-taking. One impressive detail: from across the street he films undertakers manhandling a gurney with the woman's body into their van. Cars pass in the drizzle. Suddenly there is a movement in a window of the block of flats, the reflection of a train behind the camera whizzing into the distance. It is an emblem of Micheline’s soul beginning her trip into the unknown...

But the focus of the documentary is on the accompagnateurs, the escorts. They ensure that the client is making a free choice to commit suicide. They patiently reassure them as they slowly make up their minds. They provide the lethal barbiturates and witness the deaths. It is depicted as heart-rending, exhausting work.

What strikes an English-speaking viewer as odd is the complete absence of controversy. Ethical discussions centre merely on justifying Exit’s reluctance to get involved in some cases. The escorts are over-stretched and weary; there are so many people who want to die and they cannot possibly help them all. 

But the escorts press on. Their work is, as their president, Dr Jérôme Sobel, reminds them, not a task, but a “vocation”. (He was recently re-elected president of Exit.) Indeed, their involvement is clearly a deep religious commitment. In an extraordinary sequence, Melgar films a board meeting.  In a soft golden glow, twelve escorts sit around a U-shaped table on both sides of Dr Sobel in a clear evocation of the Last Supper. “You are no longer volunteers, but priests,” Dr Sobel tells them.

The religious dimension is heightened in the quasi-liturgical language with which the saintly figure of Dr Sobel farewells Micheline. Over and over again he poses the question: do you do this freely? -- to which she murmurs again and again Oui, Oui, Oui... “May the light guide you and lead you to peace,” he tells her. “Bon voyage, Micheline.” And she falls asleep.  

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November
15
  11:12:00 PM

UK conference studies reality of Belgian euthanasia

Kevin Chalmet before his death from euthanasia    

Brittany Maynard, the American woman who announced the date of her assisted suicide through YouTube, has been a media sensation in the US and around the world. In Belgium, the news would have barely made page 4 or 5 in local newspapers. Chronicles of deaths foretold are so common that they have shrunk to 3 or 4 paragraphs.

This week a 34-year-old fireman suffering from a rare brain tumour, Kevin Chalmet, was euthanased. He invited everyone to bid him farewell, but only his girlfriend, parents and sister were there at the end – and a well-known local comedian and cartoonist who sketched his death agony from a corner.

It is the routine aspect of Belgian euthanasia which disturbs local and international observers. Early in November a conference at St Mary’s University, London, brought together experts to discuss the phenomenon. Here are a few of the highlights, pending publication of the proceedings.

Oncologist Benoit Beuselinck, of Belgium’s largest cancer centres, discussed the impact of euthanasia legislation on cancer specialists. Since the underlying cause of 73% of euthanasia cases is cancer, oncologists receive the most euthanasia requests. Bioethicist Chris Gastmans, discussed euthanasia of persons with severe dementia based on their advance directives.

Scottish bioethicist Calum MacKellar conducted a “horizon scanning” exercise to guess what consequences the normalisation of euthanasia will have in Belgium. Trevor Stammers studied a trend in combining transplants of vital organs with euthanasia. Some experts have argued that there is a moral imperative to dispense with the dead donor rule in some cases. Though the numbers are small, a quarter of lung transplants after cardiac death currently come from euthanasia donors.

Bioethicists Sigrid Sterckx and Kasper Raus reported on the use of continuous sedation. In Belgium, patients tend to be deeply sedated with no intention to wake them up again, and medical staff sometimes organize an official goodbye for relatives just before sedation is initiated. Unlike euthanasia, continuous sedation is not regulated and is not officially reported.  This raises concerns about whether Belgian physicians are using continuous sedation to avoid onerous paperwork.

And Stefaan Van Gool, a paediatric neuro-oncologist, returned to the controversial issue of euthanasia for children. How will their mental capacity be assessed? How will undue pressure be avoided? How can the law be reconciled with the idea that impulsivity is only fully controlled after 20 or 25 years?

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November
15
  11:00:00 PM

Fatherhood: superannuated or evergreen?

Has sperm donation made the status of fathers obsolete? Several items popped up in the media this week which give different answers.

NOPE: fatherhood is a primal urge. Hollywood identity Jason Patric has won a two-year legal battle to become the legal father of the child of former girlfriend and massage therapist Danielle Schreiber. The pair separated acrimoniously after Ms Screiber had conceived an IVF son with Mr Patric’s sperm. She then claimed that as a sperm donor he had no parental rights. He fought this in the courts, in the media, in the state legislature and on the internet. Now he has won.

NOPE: fatherhood is overwhelming. In an extraordinary story from Australia which was reported around the world, a woman who used an anonymous sperm donor to conceive a child ended up marrying him. Now Hollywood is interested in filming the story. After using a sperm donor who described himself as "happy and healthy", Aminah Hart, a single woman, gave birth to Leila. Shortly after her daughter’s first birthday, she contacted the donor, who turned out to be a farmer, Scott Andersen. He was besotted with the little girl who looked so much like him and the couple fell in love.

"Maybe we're rushing it. Who knows? We've both got a track record of marriages that have ended, says Ms Hart. “As Scott said, ‘I've got five kids to three women and you've got three kids to three men!' But it just feels right – I feel very certain of that. None of this has been at all conventional. We certainly are a very modern family."

KINDA SORTA: genes do count. An odd article in The New Republic describes the feelings of Stephanie Fairyington and her wife Sabrina as they sought for a sperm donor. When the lesbian couple started feeling broody, Stephanie suddenly realised that she wanted this child to carry her own genes. She asked her recently-divorced brother to be a sperm donor, but it turned out that he had had a vasectomy. “I still can’t adequately express the sadness I continue to feel when I realize that I’ll never look at a baby born of both of us. Instead, I will be looking at half of a man I don’t know, a stranger. I wish I could say that I’ve evolved from the selfish, animal longing to forge a bloodline with Sabrina, but I’m not there yet.”

YUP: men, who needs ‘em? Lucinda Bird, 38, conceived her daughter Raphael with the help of a Danish sperm donor who does not mind becoming contactable when the child turns 18. She didn’t see any particular reason why she needed a father to become a parent. “I had my parents and close friends to celebrate with, and it never occurred to me that I should share this with a man. 'While I'm certainly not a man-hater, I know what's right for me. I didn't want to trick some guy into having a baby. This seemed a more honest way of creating my family.”

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Pope condemns euthanasia, calls for a new ‘human ecology’
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