Monday, December 03, 2012

Margaret Somerville in secular garb - in the Catholic Register

Good fun, Margaret Somerville, a McGill law professor is interviewed in the Catholic Register. The main objective of the article is to figure out her 'secular stance' on assisted dying. For good measure, and presumably to ascribe expertise to her in matters bioethics, the Catholic Register describes her as a bioethics professor, yet McGill only notes her law school and her medical school professorial appointments. I was not able to find any evidence of her holding currently a formal appointment as a bioethics professor at that university. 

Evidence has never been MsSomerville's strongest point. So, without any evidence to back up her claims she declares on the Catholic website, 'One of the things that's wrong with respect to Justice (Lynn) Smith's judgment (in Carter v. Attorney General of B.C.) is that she purports to review the use of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in the jurisdictions that have legalized it. She said there is no problem, there is no slippery slope. Well, that's simply not right factually.

It turns out, in our Report on end of life decision-making in Canada we reviewed the empirical evidence on the slippery slope matter and concluded that there is no evidence that assisted dying leads us down slippery slopes to unwanted killings. Of course, we reviewed evidence, Ms Somerville is in full preaching mode. 

Ms Somerville also declares that 'The biggest group who are against euthanasia are doctors, and certainly by far not all of them are Church people.' Things are more complicated. For instance, a survey of medical specialists in Quebec reported a strong majority of medical specialists in that province coming out in favour of decriminalizing assisted dying. 

Ms Somerville is also up to her old magic tricks when framing the issue at hand: 'The pro-euthanasia people are very keen on saying there's a societal consensus, that everyone wants this. Well yes, but you've got to make sure those surveys are properly done. If you say to somebody that someone is in terrible pain and they want euthanasia, should they be able to have it? You've got to choose between saying yes to euthanasia and saying no to pain and suffering relief. What you have to do is ask people, does someone have absolute rights to all possible pain management? And the answer is yes, absolutely.' [emphasis added]

This is a true Somerville classic. The choice is, of course, not between either pain relief or euthanasia. You want good palliative care and access to assisted dying for those who do not consider their lives worth living. It's not either euthanasia or palliative care. 

She is also against equal marriage rights, because 'of its impact on kids' rights.' It goes without saying that there is no evidence that kids brought up in same sex families are in any way worse off than those who are brought up in heterosexual families, or that their 'rights' are violated in any appreciable sense. But hey, Ms Somerville is concerned. Right. How about reading up on the evidence?  I understood this to be an important concept in law, but I might be mistaken. She also notes, incredibly, that as far as she knows, homosexuality is natural 'for some people'. You just got to love her! - It is not terribly surprising, perhaps, that Ms Somerville's views, these days, are not even accepted as expert advice by the courts. As far as I can tell (her McGill website, her Wikipedia entry), this 'bioethics professor' has no formal qualifications in either ethics or bioethics.


  1. Michael FugateDecember 03, 2012

    I would imagine many nuns would have a more 'secular stance' on assisted dying, marriage rights and contraception than Ms Somerville. Why didn't they just ask a bishop - the same answer would have been the same.

  2. I read the Catholic Register regularly because its articles are always so easy to criticize. I note that the author admits that he has printed "an edited version of the interview": edited to meet the Catholic Register's requirements.

    I also note the journalists trick of using emotive language: "kill" "killing" and especially the phrase "killing inconvenient patients."

    I suspect that the CR describes Somerville as "a bioethics professor" on the strength of her being named "a Member of the Order of Australia 'for service to the law and to bioethics.'"

  3. Thank you so much for this.

    Margaret Somerville was on Radio-Noon (Montréal) today, braying against our proposed Death in Dignity legislation tabled at the Québec National Assembly. She claimed that something like 34% of doctors in Belgium didn't think adequate safeguards were in place in that country's system, and similar nonsense about the Netherlands.

    Is there a good source to contradict what seems to me numbers drawn out of a hat? Think we'll be discussing this a lot in the next few months.

    She is such a serial meddling ...b... busybody.

  4. I got to be honest, When it comes to Ms Somerville or her Ottawa ideological mate Jose Pereira I would ask to see the reference where her claim is substantiated. I would not take her word for it, neither should you. For the fun of it I looked in the academic literature for the figure you mention. There's nothing. All I could find was a 2009 survey published in a peer reviewed journal, finding that 90% of doctors in Belgium support the euthanasia legislation in the country. Unsurprisingly that doesn't mesh wish Ms Somnerville's claims...

  5. AnonymousJune 19, 2013

    Very poorly reasoned blog post, Professor. Just because 90% of doctors support legislation does not mean that they don't also believe further safeguards should be in place. Poor reasoning, and poor ability to interpret statistics. I'll stick with Prof. Somerville. By the way, please stay away from my (or my kids) hospital room if I'm ever sick - I don't want you pulling any cords. I for one, DO want to live.

  6. Anonymous ... are you sure your comment refers to my blogpost? What 90%? What statistics? Your kids, pulling cords, hospital rooms? I do think you'd stick with Ms Somerville. Perfect match.

  7. What really gets me about Somerville is that she is so palpably dishonest. Regard for evidence seems to mean nothing to her at all. She will say anything about anything, so long as it makes her sums come out correctly in the end - correctly for her, that is. She has the great fame of having written a 400 page book - she actually made a point of stressing this in her presentation to the commission in Quebec! But the book itself is just a collection of occasional writings, not a rigorous study of the issues involved in assisted dying. Indeed, not only does it not constitute a rigorous study, there are places where she simply lies or misleads to make her point. It's worrying to me that this is a person who has only to snap her fingers to get on TV or radio, or to have an op-ed printed in one of the major newspapers.

    And, Anonymous, try to keep it together, man! No one is out to pull anyone's cords! This is just the hyped up scare tactics of the religious opponents of assisted dying. There is simply no evidence of slippery slopes here, or of people setting out deliberately to pressure people into dying. Switzerland has had legal assisted suicide since 1941, and there is no sign at all that people are in any danger (even though Jose Pereira thinks so, but he would, wouldn't he?, because he's a catholic fanatic, just as Somerville is).

  8. Thank you so much for speaking out against Margaret Summerville's terrible arguments!! She is an intellectual quack (preaching homophobia, anti-abortionism, etc.) yet very few people have the guts to call her out on the many, many terrible arguments, prejudices, and -- and the long "preaching" rants (e.g. her 2006 Massey Lecture/[hate sermon]) as she gets a free pass for by being considered a "renowned academic".

  9. We don't need morphine. We just need Zyklon ZZZ.


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