July 3, 2022

Full-contact bioethics

What sinks a job application also sinks a bioethics article. That is the conclusion to be drawn from a scathing review of an article in the journal Current Oncology. It triumphantly claimed to find a score of unsupported and false statements in a harsh critique of legalised euthanasia published last year.

Former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee had this advice for an aspiring journalist who had applied for work: “Even though you are still young, very young, let me give you some advice. When you write the editor of a newspaper for a job, other things being equal, you stand a better shot if you spell his name right.”

What sinks a job application also sinks a bioethics article. That is the conclusion to be drawn from a scathing review of  an article in the journal Current Oncology. It triumphantly claimed to find a score of unsupported and false statements in a harsh critique of legalised euthanasia published last year. 

The authors of the critique, all supporters of assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada, come to the devastating conclusion that this “paper should not be given any credence in the public policy debate about the legal status of assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada and around the world.”

The original paper, titled “Legalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide: the illusion of safeguards and controls”, was written by Jose Pereira, a University of Ottawa palliative care physician. It was published in April 2011. Jocelyn Downie, a lecturer in health law at Dalhousie University, who has been a prominent advocate of euthanasia in the current debate over in Canada, went over the paper with a fine-tooth comb with her colleagues and uncovered a number of embarrassing errors. 

Some of these were inconsequential, at least for a layman. For instance, Pereira said that the United Nations had said that Dutch euthanasia violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. False, said Downie et al: we combed through every database to find this without success. It turns out that it was not the UN but the UN Human Rights Committee.  

In the same issue, Pereira makes a mea culpa. “I humbly accept that there are some errors in the references and subtleties that are regrettable.” However, he sticks to his guns. “Most of what they report to be erroneous and false I would argue is indeed correct, and other issues they raise are meant to cast aspersions and distract readers from the primary issues. The facts and my position remain unscathed; there are too few effective safeguards in place to prevent abuses in the practice of euthanasia and assisted suicide.”

The lesson is that debating euthanasia is a full-contact sport. Always wear a helmet. 

Michael Cook
Creative commons
Canada
euthanasia
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