Friday, 20 November 2009

Life Issues Update

Lots and lots of things have happened in the bioethical world since I last wrote, judging from my foremost pusher of bioethics news, the excellent Wesley J. Smith. First of all, the UK Department of Public Prosecution has issued new guidelines on prosecuting assisted suicide, effectively decriminalizing cases which it is not deemed "in the public interest" to prosecute, viz.: where the victim has a "terminal" or "severe and incurable" or "severe degenerative" disease and expressed a desire to be killed. This is not humane. It is a blatant abandonment of the weakest and most vulnerable in society; the people who have the greatest need to hear confirmed, over and over again, that their life is valuable, that things would not be better if they were gone. And it does nothing to ensure that these vulnerable persons are not subjected to insiduous erosion of their will to live ("You know, darling, I really love you, but I can see you are suffering so much... You know, you don't have to do this. There is a way out... I can help you...")

And more from the UK: a severely disabled baby boy with congenital myasthenic syndrome has been taken off his ventilator and allowed to die, even though he was awake and cognitively well-functioning. To be sure, CMS is a terrible and irreversible condition - but there is no way around concluding that this child was killed.

Canada has set up a 6-member commission to investigate the issue of euthanasia. Shock and horror, the Chairman and at least 2 other members are ardent euthanasia proponents, one is a Dutch euthanasia researcher, and the last 2 seem not to have any special interest in the issue. Selection bias anyone?

The UK is on a roll these days: a man has died after he was apparently starved and dehydrated to death in a hospital. Sound horrifying? That is in fact now an accepted and common procedure in the UK these days, it turns out. Certain terminally ill people, instead of being actually cared for at a hospice, are subjected to a 'care pathway', entailing that not only all medical treatment (except painkillers) but also all food and fluids are withheld from them and they are sedated for the last part of the ordeal (which can take weeks). As far as I am concerned, this is simply cynically speeding up their death to save costs. But in this case, things went even more wrong: what was thought to be a relapse of a lung cancer turned out on autopsy to be a simple pneumonia. As if the procedure wasn't bad enough in itself. And it most likely is not the first such incident.

Former leader of the Human Genome Project Francis S. Collins, who has written a decent book on the relationship between science and religion and is a Christian (Epsicopalian, I think), has been appointed to head the NIH in the US. I was convinced by the sincerity of his religious beliefs in his book, but I thought he was wishy-washy on some issues. Indeed, he has stated that he supports therapeutic cloning, embryonic stem cell research and even eugenic abortion. Which begs the question, has the great scientist found a way to determine that embryos are not human or merely a way to determine the fastest way to gaining the top biomedical job in the US?

On a more positive note, assisted suicide bills have been defeated in South Australia (by the narrowest possible margin - one MP had a change of heart at the last minute, citing a troubled conscience) and New Hampshire. Also, a former Director of a Planned Parenthood facility resigned her post and began working for the pro-life cause after she viewed an ultrasound of an abortion (she also claimed that the facility were being told to aggressively push for more abortions rather than conducting prevention programmes since abortions generated more income). Finally, Switzerland may outlaw suicide tourism, even though assisted suicide will probably still be legal for Swiss citizens.

The war for the dignity of human life is raging on all fronts (also ones that are not covered here, of course, but since I am a medical person, these are my special concerns). Next summer, I will probably be joining the fray. I hope that I will be allowed to get on with my job and save some lives in my own country and abroad, but it is becoming increasingly probable that I will one day find myself being forced to act against my conscience for the sake of some phoney 'right' dreamed up by a biased committee. If it so happens that I am persecuted for this, I will gladly accept it to expose the illiberality of our supposedly tolerant society.

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