Hazel McHaffie

doctor-assisted death

Ethical challenges – did anyone press the pause button?

Well, the world may have been on pause this year, but ethical issues have still raised their heads above the parapet periodically. However, I suspect most of them were lost in the cacophony of sound relating to the pandemic, so to illustrate, I’ll share a selection from the past three months up till yesterday.

December
Sweden’s gymnastic federation has now ruled that young athletes under the age of 18 will be able to train and compete as whichever gender they choose to identify as. They will not need to provide a doctor’s endorsement or any evidence of gender dysphoria.

Following a landmark High Court ruling, in the UK, new guidelines have been introduced by the NHS that make it necessary for children with gender dysphoria to obtain a court order before they are legally allowed to take puberty blockers. It is felt that under 16-year-olds are highly unlikely to fully understand the long-term risks and consequences. However the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust which runs the UK’s only gender identity development service has said it will appeal against this ruling.

`November
New euthanasia rules are being introduced in the Netherlands – a country already known for its liberal social attitudes. Doctors will now be permitted to spike patients’ drinks before lethal injections are administered, in cases where it’s impossible to obtain informed consent from a person with an advanced directive who has already expressed a wish for help to die when the time is right, but who might resist the final act. The change comes in the wake of a court case where a doctor in a nursing home secretly slipped sedation into coffee for a lady at an advanced stage of dementia. Opponents of euthanasia are understandably alarmed by this widening of the limits in the medical code.

The English Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, spelled out confirmation that travelling abroad for assisted dying constituted a legitimate reason to break lockdown restrictions.

It was an accidental error that led to the Oxford/Astro-Zeneca vaccine against Covid-19 reaching 90% efficacy. About 3000 of the more than 20,000 volunteer trial participants had been given just half the dose they should have received according to the research protocol. The ‘correct’ dose achieved just 62% efficacy. A serendipitous result. And a lucky break for whoever was responsible for the mistake!

October
The Dutch government approved plans to allow euthanasia for terminally ill children under the age of 12 who are suffering hopelessly and unbearably. Objectors see the thin end of the wedge visibly widening.

Legislation to allow medically assisted death was passed by the New Zealand parliament last year, but lawmakers delayed implementing it until the public had had their say in a referendum.  Under this law, the End of Life Choice Act, a mentally sound adult who has a terminal illness with a life expectancy of less than six months, and who is experiencing unbearable suffering, can request a fatal dose of medication. New Zealanders have voted overwhelmingly to legalise this, which means the measure will now pass.

An angry backlash developed when the Women’s Prize for Fiction opened up its eligibility criteria to include transgender women.

Six consecutive days of protest followed a near-total ban on abortions in Poland by the constitutional court. A country of 38 million people, Poland already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, and an estimated 80,000 – 120,000 Polish women travel abroad for terminations or seek illegal abortions each year.

The English government has been keen to make the process of applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate kinder, cheaper and less complicated. As part of a drive for greater equality, the Women and Equalities committee are in the process of examining whether the currently mandatory diagnosis of gender dysphoria should be dropped from the legal process of transitioning, whether transgender people should be required to live in their preferred gender for at least two years before formally transitioning, and how their rights can be better supported.

As it stands, parents in this country are allowed to terminate a pregnancy where the fetus has Down’s syndrome, at any point up to full term. Three adults with Down’s Syndrome are now launching a landmark legal challenge to the Government’s abortion legislation on the grounds that it makes them feel they shouldn’t exist and would be better off dead.

A former Public Health England medical director, Professor Paul Cosford, had never wanted to be a supporter of assisted dying, but after developing incurable lung cancer himself, changed his view and bravely declared his hand in the BMJ.

A poll of 29,000 BMA members found – for the first time – that a majority were in favour of medical professionals being able to prescribe life-ending drugs. The BMA’s position currently is that they are opposed to assisted dying.

A Dutch fertility doctor has been found to have fathered 17 children during the 1980s and 90s, with women who thought they were receiving sperm from anonymous donors.

September
After President Macron turned down his personal appeal for euthanasia, a Frenchman in his fifties, Alain Cocq, suffering from an incurable condition where the walls of his arteries stick together, announced he would refuse drink, food and medicine, and live stream his death. However Facebook said it would block this being broadcast on its forum. M Cocq subsequently said he had lost capacity for the fight, it was too difficult, and he accepted palliative care.

Last year staff at the Gender Identity Development Service raised serious concerns about safeguarding issues relating to the use of inhibitors and the speed or referral for treatment for young people. It transpired that England’s only NHS gender clinic for children knew about recommendations for puberty blockers from an internal review carried out 15 years previously, but failed to implement them. An independent review into these services is underway now to improve access to and delivery of support for these young people.

Who knew there were so many, huh? I shall never be short of material for my novels!

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Could I? Would I? Should I?

With all my talk of books lately you might well have forgotten that my blog is also about ethical issues. So, something a little more challenging this week.

QuestioningYou’ve probably heard on the news that a teenager has just become the first to be helped to die by doctors in Belgium, a country that lifted their age restrictions on assisted dying two years ago. This girl was 17 years old and terminally ill. Let’s stop and contemplate that for a moment. 17 years old … on the cusp of life. Terminally ill … a tragedy in itself. Now dead … hard to even contemplate the agony wrapped up in that reality. Sends shivers down your spine just thinking about it, doesn’t it?

Belgium legalised assisted death for adults as long ago as 2002. And in 2014 it became the only country* in the world that allows a child of any age to choose doctor-assisted death provided they have parental permission. There are strict criteria; of course there are. The minor must be terminally ill, fully and rationally understand the difference between life and death, face unbearable physical suffering that can’t be alleviated, and have made repeated requests to die. Two doctors, one of whom must be a psychiatrist, must give their approval.
(*The Netherlands permits children to have an assisted death but requires them to be aged 12 or over.)

How do you feel about this ruling?

Would you allow your child to choose to die?

But hang on a minute. Let’s not rush to judgement without properly assimilating the facts. This is not some wilful youngster throwing a hissy fit and whining about a passing ache. This is a wise-beyond-their-years person who’s known extreme and unremitting pain, who knows he/she’s not going to survive this illness. Given these circumstances, could you bear to stand by? Listening to the agonising screams? Seeing the appeal in the eyes? Watching the dying process be strung out, knowing … knowing there’s a way out, a legal option? Wouldn’t you be begging someone to do something … anything?

An opinion poll taken a few months before the law changed to allow children this choice, suggested that 75% of Belgians supported it. Understandably many churchmen, especially those of the Roman Catholic church, opposed it. OK, we know they have strong opinions and beliefs about the sanctity of life. But so too did many doctors. What does this say? They after all are the ones who care for these tragic families, make decisions about treatment, convey the bad news, feel their own powerlessness. This isn’t theoretical for them; they actually stand at those bedsides, see the agony up close and personal.

Could it be that the doctors baulk at a law that allows the life of the child to be ended actively, because they are the very people who’d be asked to actually do the deed? And they are trained to cure, not to kill. It’s so much easier for a lay person to say, ‘Oh yes, a child shouldn’t suffer unbearably; you should help them to die with dignity,’ when they know they will not be the ones called upon to inject that lethal drug.

So, maybe the question ought to be: Would you be willing to end that life yourself? And if not, is it hypocritical to approve of a law allowing assisted dying?

If so, how many of us are guilty as charged?

I’m ridiculously squeamish. I struggle to kill an insect or an arachnoid, preferring to capture them and return them to the wild. There’s something very, very special about life, especially a human life. And I’m absolutely certain I could not be actively involved in the death of a child … or … am I? Because the alternative appalls me. What right have I to insist a child endures terrible suffering? I’m not at all sure I could stand by and not do something to help if it were in my power. Maybe, just maybe, there are certain circumstances where I might feel compelled to forfeit my own comfort, my own preferences, even possibly my own principles, and put the child and his/her interests first. Whether or not I would actually do the deed is unknown. I’ve never been tested.

We haven’t come close to approving assisted dying for adults in this country yet, never mind for children. The majority of – not all – doctors and politicians oppose a change in the law. But we all ought to thoroughly consider the options and consequences nevertheless. I’m not, thank God, facing this devastating dilemma at this precise moment. You might not be. But there are too many families for whom this is no hypothetical question; this is their ongoing living nightmare. What kind of a society do we want for them?

As the late Sheila Bloom, Chief Executive of the Institute of Global Ethics once said, ‘It isn’t about knowing right from wrong – we can all do that. It’s often about choosing one right over another and finding good reasons for it.’ Or we might add, sometimes choosing the lesser of two evils.

Sobering questions for an autumnal Thursday morning, huh?

 

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