Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Margaret Somerville engages in anti-choice agitprop - again...

Margaret Somerville, a tireless campaigner for Catholic values the world all over, and a member of the law faculty at Canada's McGill university, has penned a truly embarrassing attack on the Royal Society of Canada's Expert Panel on End-of-Life Decision-Making Report in the Montreal Gazette. Without hesitation she repeats arguments that I have demonstrated in the blog entry below to be false and clearly deliberately misleading. My good colleague Daniel Weinstock, a Montreal based member of the expert panel, penned this in reply to Somerville's agitprop. Well worth reading and well worth disseminating. Ms Somerville, for far too long has got away with this kind of mischief making.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Anti-choice AgitProp

I have just penned an editorial for BIOETHICS on the fall-out resulting from the Report on End-of-Life Decision-Making in Canada that I had a hand in producing. The gist of it is that I wondered whether there's much point debating this issue with anti-choice activists (you know, for hire 'anti euthanasia', 'pro-life' agitprop types). I gave two examples, in said editorial, of encounters I had in the aftermath of the release of said Report where I confronted anti-choicers with incontrovertible evidence that their arguments are flawed. They were, in fact, unable to counter the arguments I put forward, yet that did not stop them, within 24 hours, from repeating arguments they knew at that stage to be faulty. So, why pretend that you have a genuine counter-part in a public debate, when arguably the real motives of your opponents are not out in the open to begin with and when their arguments, peppered with heart wrenching abuse stories, serve their propaganda objectives only. 


I began, half tongue-in-cheek, about a week ago a competition, encouraging readers of this blog to send me mistake they found in two such newspaper pieces of agitprop. To my delight, people actually took the time to dissect these two pieces. So, trying to be a good sport here, I am reproducing some of the mistakes people have identified in said agitprop. For reference, the Report is here or here. The agitprop articles  were published in a National Post blog entry penned by Barbara Kay, as well as in a piece published by Licia Corbella in the Calgary Herald.


Here we go: Both articles (the incriminating 'evidence' was self-reportedly 'googled' by Ms Corbella, it seems) report at great length and to much fanfare incidences of non-voluntary euthanasia in jurisdictions that have decriminalized assisted dying in some form or shape. Both authors take this as evidence that a slippery slope exists, whereby people's lives are being terminated in these jurisdictions variously against their wishes or without having requested this as a result of decriminalization. Ms Corbella bitterly complains that we have missed this evidence that is so very easily available to anyone with access to google (Ms Corbella's favourite research tool, presumably right next to wikipedia and the Anti-Euthanasia Coalition's website). Well, it turns out that we have mentioned non-voluntary euthanasia cases in our Report. Was Ms Corbella too busy copy-pasting her evidence from fellow anti-choice activists websites to actually read the Report we produced?  Be that as it may, we also pointed out that non-voluntary euthanasia takes place in societies that have not decriminalized assisted dying, hence the existence of non-voluntary euthanasia in societies that have decriminalized demonstrates nothing at all. This point has been made very eloquently in this article in the Ottawa CitizenIn fact, we provided empirical evidence in our Report that following decriminalization non-voluntary euthanasia has actually decreased in some jurisdictions (not as sexy as Ms Corbella's anecdotes, I know).  Ms Corbella was called on her obvious mistake by commentators on the Calgary Herald's on-line site, but has chosen not to reply, which brings me back to my theme: These agitprop type activists are not seriously engaged in debate, and we should not pretend otherwise. 


Barbara Kay makes a similarly obvious mistake, uncritically citing Margaret Somerville, a conservative Christian activist employed at McGill University who campaigns traditionally on any topic the Catholic Church has a strong view on (among her favourites are: gay marriage, and end-of-life issues). Kay quickly declares Somerville a bio-ethicist even though Somerville doesn't seem to have any formal degree type education at all in ethics. Be that as it may, Somerville is cited in Ms Kay's commentary, claiming that a survey shows that Canadians are in favor of improving palliative care rather than decriminalizing assisted dying. Our Report is duly blamed for not having taken this survey into account in our report. Not quite, and here we have another example of misleading use of empirical evidence. The poll in question was actually published after we completed our empirical survey chapter. More than that, the poll in question is not actually at variance with the findings of the polls we cite. The poll cited in the newspaper blog was commissioned by Life Canada (an anti-choice organization). [p 3 of on-line poll] Most of the questions in this poll are, given the nature of its partisan funder, suitably leading. However, on the evidence cited in this report 57% of respondents were in favor of the decriminalization of assisted dying. Surveys commissioned by organisations less in agitprop mode than Life Canada found significantly higher percentages of Canadians in support of a more permissive regime when it comes to assisted dying. We have cited some of those in our Report. Reportedly Life Canada has since dropped the decriminalization question altogether. Ms Somerville, in fact, used one bit of the Life Canada poll that suited her anti-choice agenda, and happily ignored what the actual evidence shows. She created the misleading impression that the survey results demonstrate preferences when they highlight priorities. The question posed was basically (pretending misleadingly that a society could have only one or the other) whether respondents were in favor of improving palliative care or in favor of decriminalizing assisted dying. [p 4 of on-line poll] I strongly encourage the interested reader to both read the newspaper blog as well as the actual survey in order to evaluate the evidence for the claims I am making in this paragraph. Kay and Somerville's misleading use of the data in Life Canada's poll brings us back to me theme for this entry: What's the point of having a serious debate with activists who are clearly not seriously interested in a genuine exchange of arguments? 


Ms Kay also mistakenly claims that access to euthanasia in the  Netherlands initially required evidence of a terminal illness. The fact is that terminal illness was never a necessary condition for access to euthanasia in that country, rather the relevant criteria were autonomous choice and individual suffering. Unlike in Ms Kay's reality, the Netherlands actually decriminalized euthanasia in 2002 and not in 1984 as she claims in her National Post piece. The problem with getting her facts right also bedevils Ms Corbella's commentary/article. She excitedly waves her hands about a 1995 report indicating that some 950 people's lives were terminated in the Netherlands without their request. Euthanasia, as already mentioned, was only decriminalized in the Netherlands in 2002.  Ms Kay must be equally desperate, why else would she have chosen to also resort to a 1995 piece to comment on the reality of euthanasia in the Netherlands today? I suspect that our two campaigners both used the same journal article, happily ignoring empirical evidence that has since 1995 been published in peer reviewed international medical journals - as referenced and discussed in our Report -  simply because it suited their ideological agenda. The author of the 1995 paper has not responded to the more recent evidence as it has accumulated.  It is worth mentioning that the incidence of non-voluntary euthanasia is higher in some countries with prohibitive regimes than in the Netherlands and Belgium.  There is no evidence that legalization of voluntary euthanasia results in non-voluntary euthanasia.  Rather, if anything, it reduces non-voluntary euthanasia.


What bothers me about agitprop such as that served up by Corbella, Kay and Somerville is that they must know that their arguments are not sustainable. They're not sustainable in the sense that it should be obvious to these authors that they are misleading the public with their intellectual content.  It seems pointless then to pretend that there is a serious intellectual debate taking place here. All that can reasonably be achieved is to debunk flawed and misleading arguments when they pop up. Because, trust me, you will see the same arguments popping up again in up-coming anti-euthanasia agitprop, probably within less than 24 hours after I post this blog entry. Such is life on the anti-choice campaign trail. 


Thanks to everyone who participated in the impromptu competition. The book price goes to a Canadian entrant, Mr. A. M. He found no less than 18 false or misleading statements across the articles/comments by Kay and Corbella. Well done Sir!