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May 31, 2007

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization Reiterates Opposition to Assisted Suicide

The nation’s leading hospice professional organization, the NHPCO, has reiterated its opposition to the legalization of assisted suicide. Good. Assisted suicide is directly contrary to the hospice philosophy. Indeed, as the statement notes, it constitutes (often unintentional) abandonment. For the full resolution, follow this link.

Poll:Euthanasia More Popular Than Assisted Suicide

A lot can be made of a new Gallop Poll about assisted suicide and euthanasia. When asked if assisted suicide is morally acceptable, 48% say yes and 44% say no. That is very close to the AP poll I posted about the other day.

Then Gallop asks a question which seems to me intended to heighten the “yes” response:

When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?”

The response is 56-38%–much lower than the high 60% we often see in polls. But note the following: First, the poll uses the “sever pain” comment, a sure fire way to increase support. Second, it is almost always a false premise, since almost all pain can be at least alleviated to some degree. Third, no legislation in the United States requires that a suicidal patient be in severe pain to qualify for assisted suicide. Fourth, note that under the poll, the disease need not be terminal, but incurable, which means that diseases such as arthritis would qualify. I will bet the poll numbers would change with more accurate questions.

And here’s an interesting note. The poll also asked, apparently about euthanasia:

When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient’s life by some painless means if the patient and his or her family request it?”

A whopping 71% say yes and 29% no. Assisted suicide advocates used to promote active euthanasia, but having lost two initiatives in Washington (1991) and California (1992), they took a step back to move the agenda forward by not permitting doctors to lethally inject, and carried the day in Oregon (1994). Since then, the entire advocacy in the USA has been for assisted suicide. (Belgium has since legalized active euthanasia.)

What can we make of this question? First, I think the authority of the doctor moves these numbers. Second, the question is vague about what it means to end a life–it could be interpreted as removing from life support. I daresay that had the term killing been used, the yes response would have plummeted. Third, note that this question wasn’t about “choice” at all but killing as a response to human suffering, with families having the right to make the decision.

In summary: Support for assisted suicide generally is lower than it has been in the past. The poll is terribly written and seems designed to get a certain response, or is sufficiently vague that people can read into what is meant by the question. And it demonstrates the principle about how the slippery slope can really take off once the premises of euthanasia advocacy are accepted.

Bottom line: Assisted suicide is a priority issue for a small, energetic group of activists. If it were an important issue for people that drove voting patterns, politicians would be running on the promise to legalize it, and very few do. However, due to the partisan differences found in the poll, there is a danger that legalization could come to be seen as just another in a series of “progressive” agenda items–although in my view, it is just the opposite–and could one day be accepted by the Democratic Party in its plank. That is one place where disability rights activists, who are generally considered a Democratic Party constituency, have provided a profound public service by standing athwart the euthanasia/assisted suicide agenda.

Expert says IVF couples exploited

The IVF industry is exploiting UK couples, charging them over the odds for treatment, fertility expert Lord Robert Winston said on Wednesday. (BBC)

Computerized Vest Helps Diagnose Mental Disorders

A study being conducted by psychiatric researchers is using a novel device to monitor patients’ behavior and create a new method for diagnostics. (Technology Review)

Op-Ed: Genes and justice

In its preamble, the recently unveiled U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities recognizes “the inherent dignity and worth and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” (Daily Herald)

Op-Ed: Do they deserve to be born?

Yes: No civilized society considers expense and practicality to be more important than goodness and humanity

No: This should be a wakeup call for us to prevent unimaginable future cruelty of this kind (Toronto Sun)

EU-wide organ donor card proposed

The idea has been proposed by EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou, as a way to increase the number of organs available for transplant operations. (BBC)

Op-Ed: Musings on Memory Modification

The common use of memory manipulation as a literary device taken in conjunction with emerging neurotechnologies makes the exploration of the meaning of memory (and its modification) extremely relevant to the present day. (IEET)

How to Heal Wounds Faster

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati say that a topical gel derived from a patient’s own blood may help prevent infection while speeding up the healing process. The finding could mean that, in the not too distant future, a concentrated “cocktail” of a person’s own blood could be used to help dress wounds, particularly in patients with diabetes or other disorders that slow the healing process. (Technology Review)

Texas futile-care bill dies; reform push lives on

Texas doctors seemed to dodge a bullet when legislation to reform the state’s futile-care law died in the House last week, but key architects of the bill now plan to press hospitals to voluntarily adopt its provisions. (Houston Chronicle)

Nation still divided on question of physician-assisted suicide

More than two-thirds of Americans believe there are circumstances in which a patient should be allowed to die, but they are closely divided on whether it should be legal for a doctor to help terminally ill patients end their own lives by prescribing fatal drugs, a new AP-Ipsos poll finds. (World Link)

Dems Plan Vote on Stem Cell Research

Congress intends to send President Bush legislation next week to ease restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, inviting his second veto in as many years on the subject. (Washington Post)

May 30, 2007

“Dr. Death Rides Again”

As promised, here is the Weekly Standard article I co-authored with Rita Marker, which points up the similarities between Jack Kevorkian’s illegal assisted suicide campaign and the legal assisted suicide regimen currently regent in Oregon. Here are a few excerpts:

In 1990, when Kevorkian began conducting post-mortem press conferences, he assured the nation his “patients” had to be terminally ill, and his attorney maintained that Kevorkian required proof of a terminal condition…Because assisted suicide is illegal in Michigan, however, authorities couldn’t take Kevorkian’s word for it, and had autopsies performed revealing that more than half of Kevorkian’s 130 known victims were not terminally ill. Most were disabled with conditions such as multiple sclerosis. In fact, several had no serious physical illnesses that could be determined upon autopsy.

Under Oregon’s assisted-suicide law, to qualify for assisted suicide, a patient is supposed to have a terminal condition, defined as a life expectancy of six months or less…And how many of those who died actually had a terminal condition? Nobody knows. Oregon does not require autopsies of people who die there by legalized assisted suicide, so we don’t know their actual underlying conditions.

Yet the words of one Oregon physician who regularly assists suicides indicate a cavalier attitude towards the law. Dr. Peter Rasmussen, an advisory board member of the Oregon chapter of Compassion & Choices, acknowledges his involvement in deaths numbering in the double digits. He said that predicting life expectancy is rife with inaccuracy but dismissed that as unimportant. He explained, “We can easily be 100 percent off, but I do not think that is a problem. If we say a patient has six months to live and we are off by 100 percent and it is really three months or even twelve months, I do not think the patient is harmed in any way.”…

Kevorkian also raised eyebrows in some quarters for having extremely brief relationships with his “patients” before helping them commit suicides. For example, Good Morning America noted that many of the people over whose deaths Kevorkian presided died within 24 hours of meeting him for the first Similar all-but-nonexistent doctor-patient relationships have been reported in Oregon. Although a patient’s requests for assisted suicide purportedly must span a 15-day period, official Oregon reports indicate that, over the last seven years, some patients have died by suicide having known their assisting doctors for a week or less…

[W]hat about Kevorkian’s lack of medical experience in examining and treating patients? Kevorkian was a pathologist who did not treat patients after his medical school and residency days in the 1950s… Kevorkian would have been within his rights under the law to act as an “attending physician” who could legally carry out assisted suicide. You see, in Oregon, any licensed physician–including any dermatologist, ophthalmologist, or pathologist–can write lethal prescriptions. It doesn’t really take a lot of medical savvy to prescribe a deadly dose. To paraphrase the Geico commercial, “It’s so easy even an unemployed pathologist can do it.”

I will have more on Kevorkian soon. In the next installment, we will explore his ultimate goal in pursuing his nearly decade-long assisted suicide campaign. Hint: It had very little to do with compassion.

More on Dutch “Organ” Game Show

When I wrote the other day about the Dutch “reality” television show in which a terminally ill woman will interview “contestants” vying to receive her kidney for transplant, I assumed that the donation would be after she had died. Apparently not. According to this story, the dying woman wants her kidney taken before death.

Will doctors actually permit themselves to be part of such a scheme? And if a dying woman, why not a disabled person who is depressed and feels his or her organs would be better used by someone else? Or for that matter, whyt not any suicidal person? After all, choice is choice, and ratings are ratings.

By the way, please do not believe that such grizzly scenarios are unthinkable. In Culture of Death I quote two very prominent American organ transplant ethicists who argue that it could be acceptable to permit people to donate their organs as part of every planned death, including euthanasia. That is also Kevorkian’s perspective.

Book Review: The Brain that Changes Itself

In bookstores, the science aisle generally lies well away from the self-help section, with hard reality on one set of shelves and wishful thinking on the other. But Norman Doidge’s fascinating synopsis of the current revolution in neuroscience straddles this gap: the age-old distinction between the brain and the mind is crumbling fast as the power of positive thinking finally gains scientific credibility. (New York Times)

StemLifeLine Introduces First Service Allowing IVF Patients to Develop Personal Stem Cell Lines

With this Tissue Bank license, individuals who have undergone in vitro fertilization (IVF) may now use StemLifeLine’s service to develop personal stem cell lines from their remaining stored embryos. StemLifeLine is the first life sciences company to offer this unique service through IVF centers. (Genetic Engineering News)

Nanotechnology Spotlight: A closer look at nanomedicine

In our May 7 spotlight “The potential and the pitfalls of nanomedicine” we took a general look at the potential implications of nanomedicine and addressed some ethical issues that arise as the technology develops. In part two of this article we now take a closer look at emerging nanomedical techniques such as nanosurgery, tissue engineering, nanoparticle-enabled diagnostics, and targeted drug delivery. (Nanowerk)

Op-Ed: Break a Confidence? Never. Well, Hardly Ever.

Anyone who has ever worked in a hospital can attest that doctors are purveyors of information: dry facts, clinical data, medical wisdom. When I was an intern, my hospital had a separate computer system for laboratory results, another for vital signs and nursing notes, and another for medical records. Clinical medicine, it seemed then, wasn’t about patient care as much as about data management. (New York Times)

New South Wales conscience vote on cloning

NSW MPs will be allowed a conscience vote on controversial new laws which will overturn a five-year ban on cloning of embryonic stem cells for scientific research. (The Daily Telegraph)

Op-Ed: An ethical desert

If you were the kind of person who got depressed about this kind of thing, then the most depressing thing about the Big Donor Show is that it’s called the Big Donor Show. As if it’s not already enough to be dying, to show that on the telly. As if it’s not already enough to up the stakes of a game show so that there’s a kidney in it for the contestants. (Guardian Unlimited)

Schwarzenegger to announce stem cell project with Ontario

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in Canada for a three-day trade mission to promote tourism in his state, talk about the environment and forge deals on low carbon fuel alternatives, will announce Wednesday a new project to advance stem cell research in this country. (


The Bioethics Poll
Should individuals and/or institutions be allowed to patent human genes?
Yes, with some qualifications

View results

Which area of research should more money be invested in:
Animal-Human Hybrids
Gene Therapy
Reproductive Technology
Stem Cell Research
"Therapeutic" Cloning
None of the above

View results

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