Dying children don’t rate religious viewpoints

Belgium is on the map these days, and not for its waffles or Brussels sprouts. It’s for passing a law allowing children to have themselves killed.

Euthanasia is already legal there, but in mid-February the nation extended the “privilege” to children. As you might expect, there’s been much hand-wringing over the matter, such as on CNN or at ABC News.

The journalists there sought out educators, pediatricians and medical researchers. Naturally.

You know whom they didn’t ask? You got it: religious leaders. The ones who have dealt with issues of life and death, and beyond, since before the written word was invented.

How’s that working out? Well, we get some back-and-forth on the need for the law, although the two stories don’t handle the issues equally. Both raise the specter of children suffering unbearably with some disease like cancer. Both note that the law requires parental consent and counseling for the children, to make sure they understand what euthanasia means — “the child must understand the gravity of the request,” says ABC. But ABC appears to focus more on the general philosophy behind euthanasia; CNN brings up more reasons against it.

“I think there is such a thing as a futility in palliative care: that for some patients even the best palliative care will not suffice to ease their suffering,” Belgian sociologist Kenneth Chambaere tells ABC. He also “argues that in reality, Belgium will also have an age limit because of the strict competence and capability criteria.”

ABC reports that people also request euthanasia in Belgium for depression, and that a death wish may well be a symptom of dementia. The article goes into waiting periods and advance directives, neither of which have much to do with killing children.

The weird thing about the CNN story is one of the cases it brings up to illustrate why some people see a need for children’s euthanasia — a woman who was distraught over the prolonged death of her baby from a neurological illness:

“That whole period of sedation, you always need to give more and more medication, and you start asking questions. And you say, ‘What’s the use of keeping this baby alive?’ ” [Linda] van Roy said.

She wishes she could have administered a fatal dose of medication to make the end of her daughter’s short life come more quickly.

That’s why she’s campaigning for a change to Belgium’s euthanasia laws, to give the choice of ending their suffering to older children whose bodies are wracked with pain.

An accompanying video shows the mother and her dying child and, shockingly, cuts to a Belgian doctor who says that the euthanasia law would just legalize what some doctors already do.

This despite the fact that, as ABC points out, the baby, who died at 10 months, “would never have qualified for euthanasia.” So the mother pushes for a law to enable children to end the kind of prolonged death her baby underwent, even though the law wouldn’t have affected the baby? Sounds like logic works no better in Brussels than in Washington, D.C. Might there be another side to quote in that debate linked to faith and ethics?

At least CNN lines out several secular reasons against euthanasia for children. Among them: Medicine now provides for pain management; few children will ever ask to die; most medical teams caring for terminally ill children wouldn’t believe that children make a “spontaneous and voluntary demand” for euthanasia.

Most tellingly, CNN quotes a nurse’s belief “that giving children a choice would mean they made decisions based on what they thought their families wanted to hear, and that it would be a terrible strain for children who may already feel they are a burden to their caregivers.”

What does God think of all this?

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Schiavo redux

A French court has ordered a Reims hospital to provide nutrition and hydration to 38-year old quadriplegic Vincent Lambert, who has been in a state of minimal consciousness (en état de conscience minimale) for five years following a motorcycle accident.

Last Thursday a tribunal administratif overruled the wishes of the hospital, Lambert’s wife and some of his siblings who wanted to cut off intravenous feeding. The court sided with his parents and his other siblings, who as observant Catholics, objected to euthanizing him. Le Monde reports the Lambert case will reopen the contentious debate about euthanasia, the value of life and human dignity in France.

Have we not heard this before?

The Lambert case has a number of parallels with Terri Schiavo saga in America: a spouse ready to move on vs. Catholic parents not ready to let go; no clear statement of the patient’s wishes, conflicting medical terminology of persistent vegetative state v. minimal consciousness; political intervention by Congress and partisan debates in the French parliament; and a high profile role played by Catholic bishops. While it is early days yet, the most striking difference is the different decisions reached by the courts.

In Florida the courts came down on the side of death, even though the presumption of the law is in favor of life, while in France they have chosen life, even though euthanasia is legal.
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Missing Catholic voices in Belgium’s euthanasia debate

Let me commend to you an excellent article on a horrible subject.

The Associated Press story “Belgium considering unprecedented law to grant euthanasia for children, dementia patients” reports on moves by the ruling Socialist Party to permit doctors to euthanize children as well as adults with dementia. This report — long at 1000 words from a wire service — offers a balanced account on the move to extend the right to die to children.

It is thorough, balanced, provides context and expert analysis to allow a reader to make up his own mind. Yet, are some voices missing? The article opens with a question:

Should children have the right to ask for their own deaths?

It lays out the issue:

In Belgium, where euthanasia is now legal for people over the age of 18, the government is considering extending it to children — something that no other country has done. The same bill would offer the right to die to adults with early dementia.

Advocates argue that euthanasia for children, with the consent of their parents, is necessary to give families an option in a desperately painful situation. But opponents have questioned whether children can reasonably decide to end their own lives. …

Provides context:

Belgium is already a euthanasia pioneer; it legalized the practice for adults in 2002. In the last decade, the number of reported cases per year has risen from 235 deaths in 2003 to 1,432 in 2012, the last year for which statistics are available. Doctors typically give patients a powerful sedative before injecting another drug to stop their heart. …

And offers opinion from a Catholic archbishop and medical ethicists.

“It is strange that minors are considered legally incompetent in key areas, such as getting married, but might (be able) to decide to die,” Catholic Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard testified. Charles Foster, who teaches medical law and ethics at Oxford University, believes children couldn’t possibly have the capacity to make an informed decision about euthanasia since even adults struggle with the concept.

“It often happens that when people get into the circumstances they had so feared earlier, they manage to cling on all the more,” he said. “Children, like everyone else, may not be able to anticipate how much they will value their lives if they were not killed.”

There are others, though, who argue that because Belgium has already approved euthanasia for adults, it is unjust to deny it to children. “The principle of euthanasia for children sounds shocking at first, but it’s motivated by compassion and protection,” said John Harris, a professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester. “It’s unfair to provide euthanasia differentially to some citizens and not to others (children) if the need is equal.” …

The AP’s sentiments are with those opposed to euthanizing children — closing with comments by an anti-euthanasia voice that lands a solid hit on those who call for death-choice. But it nevertheless offers both sides to the story and refrains from demonizing those with whom it disagrees. For a template on how to write a story about a contested moral issue, I would offer this piece.

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Removing religious voices from ‘right to die’ debate

YouTube Preview ImageThe Court of Appeal for England and Wales has upheld the blanket ban on euthanasia and assisted suicide, holding there is no “right to die” under British and European Community law. The court in Nicklinson & Anor, R (on the application of) v A Primary Care Trust [2013] EWCA Civ 961 held there was no legal, moral or social need to rethink Parliament’s prohibition on euthanasia.

However, if you turned to The Independent to find out what happened you might well be excused for thinking this was an exercise in unthinking, hard-hearted judicial tyranny. The article “Barbaric and inhumane: Paralysed man Paul Lamb hits back after judges dismiss his right-to-die appeal” is unbalanced and ill-informed. It may well be that The Independent wanted a news story to accompany an op-ed piece entitled “Comment: Case for assisted dying is overwhelming”, but I am hard pressed to tell which is news story and which is the special pleading of one of the parties.

The story opens with:

Britain’s right-to die laws are “barbaric and inhumane” a paralysed man said after three of the country’s most senior judges today rejected his appeal to be allowed assistance to help him end his own life.

Paul Lamb, 57, has spent the past 23 years receiving round-the-clock care following a car crash which left him with only a tiny degree of movement in his right arm. He said politicians were “scared to death” to bring the UK in line with other countries where assisted suicide was legal.

Having framed the story in terms of the feelings of one of the appellants the article states:

Mr Lamb said he had no plans to take his life at present. But he said: “I am doing this for myself as and when I need it. I’m doing it for thousands of other people living what can only be described as a hell. Many of them have been in touch with me begging me to continue this fight. The more it goes on the stronger I am getting,” he said.

This case tells us a great deal about the opinions of Paul Lamb and the British Humanist Association. It is not until the very last paragraph of the story that we hear the voice of someone who believes the court decidedly wisely. And we hear almost nothing as to what the court said and why it said it.
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Child euthanasia in the European press

A front page story in the Monday edition of the Brussels’s daily De Morgen on a Belgian Senate committee’s deliberations on whether the country’s laws should be extended to permit the euthanasia of children and dementia patients has created a buzz on pro-life and political websites.

American commentators picked up the story after the Presseurop website ran an English language summary of the story entitled: “Another step towards euthanasia for children”.

Writing in National Review Online Wesley J. Smith captured the outrage common amongst these stories. He observed:

Child euthanasia: It’s all over but the final voting in Belgium as the Parliament agrees across party lines that doctors should be able to euthanize children. From the Presseurop story:

“In the wake of several months of testimony from doctors and experts in medical ethics, a Belgian Senate committee will on June 12 examine the possible extension of the country’s euthanasia law to include children. “On both sides of the linguistic border, liberals and socialists appear to agree on the fact that age should not be regarded as a decisive criteria in the event of a request for euthanasia,”De Morgen. They want doctors to decide on a minor’s capacity for discernment on a case by case basis.”

Treating a child like a sick horse is what passes for “compassion” these days.

I have received several emails from GR readers alerting me to these posts. This is a powerful story — but is it a GetReligion story? I would say no — this is a political story with an ethical question serving as the MacGuffin.

What is a MacGuffin you ask? It is a plot device in fiction and film — the object of passion, desire or motivation for the action, but of little real consequence to the film. Wikipedia notes that Alfred Hitchcock explained the term “MacGuffin” in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: “[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers”.

Why is euthanasia a MacGuffin in this story? Is it not an ethical question whose coverage would fall under ambit of GR? Perhaps. But in this case what we are seeing from the commentators is reaction to a single story from a left-wing Dutch language newspaper that was summarized by a website for an English-speaking audience. And the title served as a great hook too.

If you move outside of the De Morgen story what you find is the euthanasia argument is part of a the larger story of the dysfunction of the coalition government in Belgium. The Liberals and Socialists want to relax the law to allow under 18s to have the right to kill themselves — they still will not be able to drink, vote or smoke but would be able under law to be adjudged competent as to whether they want to live. The other coalition parties — the Christian Democrats and centrist parties object to the change, arguing this was not part of the manifesto that formed the coalition. The left is soliciting support from the Flemish nationalists and the Greens — currently in opposition — to supplant the center right coalition partners — and they want to do this before the next general election so the issue does not dominate the political debates.

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Normalizing nihilism: Euthanasia and the Daily Mirror

A story in Thursday’s Daily Mirror about the first English patient suffering from dementia to have traveled to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich to kill himself by physician assisted suicide has prompted several “me too” stories in the British press.

On Friday the TelegraphIndependentBBCDaily Mail and Times  followed the Daily Mirror’s lead and reported that an 83 year old man with early dementia had killed himself at Dignitas seven weeks ago.

The Sunday Times first reported this story in March, however the Daily Mirror splashed the story on their front page last week after it secured an exclusive interview with Michael Irwin, the head of the pro-euthanasia group Society for Old Age Rational Suicide (SOARS).

Irwin told the Mirror he had referred the man to a psychiatrist to provide him with a medical certificate stating he was of sound mind, and hence competent to kill himself. The 83 year old man was his first dementia patient he passed on to Dignitas, but he admits to having sent 24 others to their voluntary deaths in Switzerland.

From the point of view of journalism I find this story problematic — morally this is abhorrent. The article’s lede states:

A British man has become the first dementia sufferer to die at a controversial suicide clinic. The 83-year-old man ended his life at Dignitas in Switzerland because he could not face the agony of the progressive, incurable disease. He also wanted to spare those closest to him from any burden and strain his illness might put on them.

After reporting the facts of the death the Mirror presents its angle.

And last night one campaigner told how the pensioner was “so grateful at the end.” Retired GP Michael Irwin, 81, had arranged for him to see a psychiatrist to produce a report saying he was mentally competent.

Irwin is then offered his moment in the spotlight and he presents his ethical arguments in favor of physician assisted suicide. Prominent supporters of euthanasia give their say (Melvyn Bragg, Terry Pratchett, Lord Falconer) — though it is unclear whether these are comments in response to this incident or general statements about physician assisted suicide.

A contrary view is also offered:

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Secular-sacred union between Washington state hospitals

Suffice it to say that your GetReligionistas frequently receive emails that sound something like this:

In the Sunday, April 28, 2013 Seattle Times there is an interesting story on the potential impact of Catholic hospitals taking over public hospitals. … Overall the article is interesting and informative; however, as a former reporter I found it perplexing how the author … slips into what is essentially an advocacy role in the story.

Paragraph four reads: “But over the years, these citizens have paid hard-earned tax money to keep United General Hospital open, and they don’t want religious doctrine espoused by someone else — surely not someone in Rome or even Seattle — to govern their reproductive and end-of-life choices.”

That strikes me as editorializing. …

Actually, this is a close call for me. The key is an editing rule that I try to teach my journalism students every semester.

Consider this journalism question: Must reporters include an attribution phrase with each and every sentence, or even paragraph, that they write? This is an especially tricky issue when reporters offer paraphrased quotes built on multiple interviews, as opposed to direct quotes from one specific individual or document.

I teach students this rule: Never let readers go more than one paragraph without knowing the source of the information. Stated another way: It’s OK to have a paragraph without an attribution clause if its information is clearly connected to information in a previous paragraph that is clearly attributed to a source or a group of sources.

In this case, the story opened by discussing debates in a Washington town called Sedro-Woolley about changes linked to the merger of their small, struggling secular hospital with a multistate Catholic health-care system. In that context, readers are told:

Critics say they’re not anti-Catholic or anti-religion. And they don’t underestimate the hardship and hard work of the dedicated nuns who brought health care to remote logging and mining towns in Washington before it was even a state.

But over the years, these citizens have paid hard-earned tax money to keep United General Hospital open, and they don’t want religious doctrine espoused by someone else — surely not someone in Rome or even Seattle — to govern their reproductive and end-of-life choices.

“When a hierarchy of a religious entity is in charge of the ethics of a hospital, then they are in control — not the members of a community,” says Mary Kay Barbieri, 69, co-chairwoman of People for Healthcare Freedom, which is fighting the proposal.

Well now. For me, what we have here is a questionable attempt to chop one strong summary paragraph — note the connecting “but” in the third sentence — into two punchy paragraphs, perhaps to quicken the pace for readers.

However, in doing this, editors created a strongly opinionated second paragraph that is not clearly linked to that earlier attribution phrase, “Critics say they are not …”

Would our GetReligion reader have reacted negatively if the editors had been more old school and added a few more words to the offending neo-opinion paragraph? What if the story had said: “But over the years, these critics have paid hard-earned tax money to keep United General Hospital open, and they insist that they don’t want religious doctrine espoused by someone else — surely not someone in Rome or even Seattle — to govern their reproductive and end-of-life choices.”

Better? What does the story lose through that tiny addition?

It’s likely that our reader would not have had a negative reaction to that, or if the two paragraphs had been combined with that crucial “but” clause in the middle.

Picky? You bet. But this is an important and loaded topic. There are, to state the obvious, crucial church-state issues involved and the setting is oh, so provocative. As the story later notes:

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