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Life and Death

What should we Think about Belgium’s Child Euthanasia Law?

15 Feb, 14 | by Iain Brassington

With any luck, the nuts real-world work schedule of the past few months* will begin to ease in a few days, so I should be able to start blogging more frequently soon; but I thought I’d take a moment out from writing jurisprudence lectures to do some thinking out loud about Belgium’s recent change to its euthanasia law, which legalises it for children.  This is partly because it’s interesting in its own right, and partly because I’m debating it on Radio 4’s Sunday programme this week.  I’ve drafted this post before the interview’s recorded, but I’m not publishing it until after (though before the broadcast); let’s see how my thoughts here pan out on air…**

For reference, the text of the law is available here in French, and here in Dutch – thank goodness for A/S levels.  A decent précis provided by AP is hosted here; and Christian Munthe has an unofficial translation here.

OK: so, what should we think about it? more…

Sex-Selection and Abortion: Is there a Problem?

17 Jan, 14 | by Iain Brassington

This is just a quick post, and it’s mainly to draw your attention to a couple of other posts worth reading elsewhere.

A little background: there’s been a minor fuss* in the media over the last few days concerning sex-specific abortion**, after The Independent reported that

[t]he practice of sex-selective abortion is now so commonplace that it has affected the natural 50:50 balance of boys to girls within some immigrant groups and has led to the “disappearance” of between 1,400 and 4,700 females from the national census records of England and Wales, we can reveal.

Now, there’s something a bit fishy about the article even on its own terms: alarm bells should be got ringing by this:

[O]ur deeper statistical analysis of data from the 2011 National Census has shown widespread discrepancies in the sex ratio of children in some immigrant families, which can only be easily explained by women choosing to abort female foetuses in the hope of becoming quickly pregnant again with a boy.

After all, it does seem to reduce to a claim along the lines that “I can’t think of a better explanation than e for phenomenon p, therefore e obtains” – but that tells us far more about the limits of the speaker’s imagination than about the state of the world.  Besides, while there are good reasons to favour the most simple explanation of p, one ought to keep a distinction between the simple and the simplistic.  Bluntly, an easy explanation isn’t any more likely to be true by dint of being easy.  E=mc2 is simple once you’ve derived it, but its derivation isn’t easy.

But how reliable is the Indy‘s analysis anyway?  I’ve not gone through the data myself, but Unity has, and has a couple of really good posts: the first is here, and the followup is here.

They’re very worth the read – but I recommend that you make yourself a good cup of tea before starting them.  They’re looooooong.  I’d be interested to know what others think, though.


UPDATE: There’s even more.  I think Unity’s enjoying himself with this.


* Minor in the sense that it’s been eclipsed by things like Oscar nominations.

** Here’s Christina Odone, for example, blaming it all on feminism.  Surprised?  You could knock me down with a bulldozer.

Identity and IVF

11 Jan, 14 | by Iain Brassington

It’s good to see that Stephen Latham is blogging again after a short hiatus; and he’s come back with a really thought-provoking post on IVF and problems of identity.

The background is this: apparently, there is evidence that children conceived by IVF are at an elevated risk of health problems compared to kids conceived naturally:

Compared to spontaneously-conceived singletons, singletons from assisted conception were almost twice as likely to be stillborn, more than twice as likely to be pre-term, almost three times as likely to have very low birth weight, and twice as likely to die within the first four weeks after birth. Outcomes varied by type of assisted conception. Very low and low birth weight, very preterm and preterm birth, and neonatal death were “markedly” more common in births from IVF and, to a lesser degree, in births from ICSI. Use of frozen embryos elminated the risks of ICSI, but not of IVF. But frozen embryos also had increased risk of macrosomia.

This is the paper that Stephen mentions; but it’s not the only one to report potential risks associated with IVF.  A rather kneejerk response to this is to go “Eeeep!  This means that IVF is dangerous, and we’re harming kids by conceiving them by this method”.  (I suspect that there’s an element of that in posts like this – though admittedly if that element is there, it’s being deployed merely as a part of a wider attack on IVF, motivated for different reasons.)  But, of course, kneejerk reactions are rarely all that morally insightful, and the conventional response to concerns about IVF is rather more sanguine.

Borrowing heavily from Parfit, the standard response is this: each of us is reliant on a particular egg and a particular sperm having fused in a particular way.  Had that been different, we would not have come into being.  A month later, and it’d’ve been a different egg; and it could easily have been a different sperm cell.  Any resultant child would be related to us only in the same way as a sibling – except that it wouldn’t be our sibling, because we wouldn’t be there.  This indicates that, if IVF represents a child’s only chance of coming into existence – and it probably is – it is hard to say that the child has been harmed or wronged thereby.  There may be a qualification to add, along the lines that should the child’s life be so bad that non-existence would be preferable, existence may be a harm; but that kind of outcome is probably hyperbolic in practice.  An elevated risk of any congenital characteristic is therefore unlikely to count as a harm.

So, as Stephen points out, we can ask a question: more…

News from Wisconsin: It’s not OK if your Child Dies, even if you’re Praying

17 Jul, 13 | by Iain Brassington

(Note: I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t actually post it for some reason.  I’ve no idea why it’s taken me so long.  But it’s here now…)

Via Facebook a couple of weeks ago, I came across this story, about a couple whose conviction over the death of their child has been upheld:

A mother and father who prayed instead of seeking medical help as their daughter died were properly convicted of homicide, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a decision that dramatically limits legal immunity for parents who turn to God rather than science to heal their children.


Most states, including Wisconsin, created exemptions from child abuse charges for prayer-healing parents in the 1970s to meet federal requirements.

That last sentence is one I find pretty astonishing; and I thought it worth having a dig around to see what I could learn about Wisconsin’s laws in particular.

This one sets the scene:

Practice of Christian Science. No law of this state regulating the practice of medicine and surgery may be construed to interfere with the practice of Christian Science. A person who elects Christian Science treatment in lieu of medical or surgical treatment for the cure of disease may not be compelled to submit to medical or surgical treatment.

I’m puzzled by the particular emphasis here.  Does Christian Science have a big following in Wisconsin?  Why does it get special mention?  Still: I guess that the gist of the law is unobjectionable – it says, in effect, that a person with capacity mayn’t have treatment forced on them, which is fair enough.  We might even infer that the person who drafted the law thought Christian Science so daft that it needed to be spelled out explicitly that people invoking it have capacity, whatever the appearance.

Still: electing to refuse treatment is one thing; refusing it on behalf of another is another.  It’s at this point that things get a bit weird.  This law, for example, states that

[a] determination that abuse or neglect has occurred may not be based solely on the fact that the child’s parent, guardian, or legal custodian in good faith selects and relies on prayer or other religious means for treatment of disease or for remedial care of the child.

And this feeds into the statute that is, as far as I can see, most relevant to the Neumanns’ case, with §6 being particularly noteworthy:

Treatment through prayer. A person is not guilty of an offense under this section solely because he or she provides a child with treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone for healing in accordance with the religious method of healing permitted under s. 48.981 (3) (c) 4. or 448.03 (6) in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.

Crikey.  I don’t know how that’s justifiable.  I mean, it’s one thing to say that families have the right to function as they will, and that parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit.  I’m not sure that they do (morally, I mean, not legally) – but even if they do have such a right, one would have thought that it has limits.  It’s not hard to think of lurid examples of where the “right” might run out.  But it’s tempting to think that praying instead of seeking treatment that, y’know, has a good evidential basis, might be a straightforward and non-lurid instance of the right petering out.  “Treatment by spiritual means” is a bit rum, too.

If you’ve got certain convictions, you shouldn’t be surprised if you end up with a second conviction of  a quite different sort.

Charles Foster ponders the case here.

JME Special Edition on Infanticide and “After-Birth Abortion”

2 May, 13 | by Iain Brassington

It’s going to be a little while before regular blogging resumes here – I’m aiming to get back up to speed in the next 10 days or so – but, in the meantime, the special edition of the JME devoted to The Paper Of Which We Do Not Speak is now out and available here.  Some of the papers are open access; others aren’t.

For better or worse, part of being unable to do much blogging at the moment is that I’m not going to be around much to mod any comments that come in – as I’m sure they will – over the next few days.  Don’t go thinking you’re being blocked: it’s much more likely that I’m marking essays.

Italian Pop Music’s Role in Bioethical Debate

12 Feb, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Sadly, the list entitled “Great Moments in Italian Pop” is short; but the entry that must surely be at the top is probably very near the top of the list entitled “Great Moments in All Pop”.  It’s a 1972 song by Adriano Celentano.


It’s pure gibberish – a parody of what anglophone pop sounds like to people who don’t speak English.

I mention it here for a couple of reasons.  The first is that it’s great.  The second is that it’s a nice way of talking about people who appear to be going through the motions of thinking about ethical matters, but who just get it wrong, and are actually talking gibberish.

Via Dominic Wilkinson, this gem from BioEdge is a lovely example of bioethical prisencolinensinainciusol.  On the face of it, it’s a plea for consistency when it comes to policymaking.

[I]n the Australian state of Queensland […], the police union has argued that pregnant women who abuse alcohol should be forced to live in safe houses. “Those [unborn] children also deserve a right to full life and health and should not be disadvantaged simply because of the actions or inaction of their birth mother,” said Union president Ian Leavers.

Obviously this is a controversial issue, but I can’t understand how one can both defend access to legal abortion and lock up women who might harm their children.

The link provided is to The Australian, which is behind a paywall, so not something I can access.  However, carries the story, too, reporting Union president Levers to have said that the state should be able to intervene in cases where children are at risk of foetal alcohol syndrome and drug addictions.

“Those children also deserve the right to a full life and health and should not be disadvantaged simply because of the actions or inaction of their birth mother.  The state must have the ability to intervene and protect the unborn child when its mother refuses, or is incapable or unwilling to do so.”

Mr Leavers said tougher laws would complement the criminal code, which provides for a charge of killing an unborn child or grievous bodily harm for any person who violently kills or harms an unborn child.

This is a bit odd, all told.  I mean: it might be easy enough to agree that pregnant women probably ought to reduce, or even eliminate, certain behaviours.  But the idea that that might be a matter for the law is very strange indeed.  What would the sanction be?  Is the idea that it’d be better for pregnant women to be in prison?  Fined?  And what about the plausible claim that alcohol or drug abuse is itself a health problem?  Or the distinct possibility that women who do drink or use drugs are much less likely to seek any medical advice at all during their pregnancy if they think that the state might punish them for their behaviour, thereby making a suboptimal situation even worse?  Legal intervention of the sort indicated would be both cack-handed and unjust.

But what about BioEdge‘s plea for consistency?  From what I can see, there’s a fairly obvious set of rejoinders.  First, the police union can say what it likes about what the law should be, but the role of the police is to enforce the law as it stands.  So not interfering with a woman’s legal right to abortion is not the same as defending it.  Likewise, mooting the idea that women might be sanctioned for risking the health of the foetus is not the same as locking women up.  BioEdge seems to have got the difference between voicing an idea, and enforcing a policy, utterly the wrong way around.  BioEdge‘s writer makes it sound like a moral argument is being made; but, really, it isn’t.  Second, that it’s odd to defend abortion but advocate sanctions against risky behaviour in pregnant women may be true – I mean, it’s not a crazy suggestion – but it doesn’t follow from that that one ought to change one’s mind about abortion (which is, I think, given BioEdge‘s commitments generally, what the implication is): all else being equal, and given a whole truckload of secondary arguments about the moral status of the foetus and the moral status of the mother, it’s at least prima facie more likely that it’s the risky behaviour claim that’s off.  Third, that the representative of a policing union has made a statement about what the law should be is in no way an indication that that statement should be taken seriously.

Come on, BioEdge.  Fair play to you: you look like you’re doing the job… but… Prisencolinensinainciusol.

Maybe there’ll be richer pickings from the other story behind the link.  In Tasmania,

the premier and deputy premier have released a long report on legalised euthanasia. They insist that there is no “sound evidence” of potential elder abuse. However, rates of child abuse are nearly 60% higher there than in other Australian states. Isn’t that a bit inconsistent? The kind of people who abuse children probably won’t mind abusing grannies.

Ummm… wait a sec: What?

But that’s not what it says, is it?

25 Jan, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Today’s blast of righteous indignation is directed towards New Mexico.  House Bill 206 says, in essence, that… well, it’s short, so here it is in full:




Cathrynn N. Brown




SECTION 1.  Section 30-22-5 NMSA 1978 (being Laws 1963, Chapter 303, Section 22-5, as amended) is amended to read:


A.  Tampering with evidence consists of destroying, changing, hiding, placing or fabricating any physical evidence with intent to prevent the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of any person or to throw suspicion of the commission of a crime upon another.

B.  Tampering with evidence shall include procuring or facilitating an abortion, or compelling or coercing another to obtain an abortion, of a fetus that is the result of criminal sexual penetration or incest with the intent to destroy evidence of the crime.

C.  Whoever commits tampering with evidence shall be punished as follows:

(1)  if the highest crime for which tampering with evidence is committed is a capital or first degree felony or a second degree felony, the person committing tampering with evidence is guilty of a third degree felony;

(2)  if the highest crime for which tampering with evidence is committed is a third degree felony or a fourth degree felony, the person committing tampering with evidence is guilty of a fourth degree felony;

(3)  if the highest crime for which tampering with evidence is committed is a misdemeanor or a petty misdemeanor, the person committing tampering with evidence is guilty of a petty misdemeanor; and

(4)  if the highest crime for which tampering with evidence is committed is indeterminate, the person committing tampering with evidence is guilty of a fourth degree felony.”

SECTION 2.  EFFECTIVE DATE.–The effective date of the provisions of this act is July 1, 2013.

The new bit is section B.

In a statement, the congresswoman who introduced the Bill, one Cathrynn Brown, said that her intention was to punish the person who commits incest or rape and then procures or facilitates an abortion to destroy the evidence of the crime.

Hmmm.  Except that that’s not what it says, is it?  Maybe she should read the text of her own Bill.  It talks about procuring an abortion, as well as compelling or coercing another person to have one.

I think that the second bit is actually fairly unobjectionable.  To compel someone to have a medical procedure, whomever that someone is, and whatever the procedure, is to wrong them; and if you compel them to have the procedure in order to remove evidence of another wrong, then the wrongness is multiplied.  But, y’know… that first bit… um… more…

Double Effect in the Halappanavar Case

5 Dec, 12 | by Iain Brassington

In the wake of Savita Halappanavar’s death, a statement was issued by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.  The whole thing is available here.  However, I think that a couple of paragraphs is particularly worth picking out:

Where a seriously ill pregnant woman needs medical treatment which may put the life of her baby at risk, such treatments are ethically permissible provided every effort has been made to save the life of both the mother and her baby.

Whereas abortion is the direct and intentional destruction of an unborn baby and is gravely immoral in all circumstances, this is different from medical treatments which do not directly and intentionally seek to end the life of the unborn baby. Current law and medical guidelines in Ireland allow nurses and doctors in Irish hospitals to apply this vital distinction in practice while upholding the equal right to life of both a mother and her unborn baby.

I think that the first of these paragraphs is pretty unexceptionable, and describes something approaching the default setting for medical interventions anyway.  We might want to talk about “reasonable efforts” rather than “every effort”, since the latter does perhaps tend towards the onerous; but the general gist seems OK to me – almost trivially so.

Note, though, how a great deal rides on a distinction between different kinds of pregnancy-terminating procedure (PTP, from now on).  Notably, there’s a line drawn around abortion as a particular form of PTP.  The statement admits that certain PTPs may be permissible: what matters is that there should be no intention to kill.  Thus certain PTPs may be permissible notwithstanding foetal death if that death is not intended.  I take this to mean that, should the foetus survive, permissible PTPs would be those in which there is no sense that the procedure had gone wrong.  Abortion would be the kind of PTP that is impermissible, precisely because the intention is to kill.  (At the extreme, successful delivery is a kind of PTP, too, since it does end the pregnancy – it’s just that it’s the kind of PTP that we celebrate, rather than tolerate.)

Fairly clearly, the Bishops’ statement relies on some form of the Doctrine of Double Effect: the idea that there’s a moral difference to be had between intending some outcome, and foreseeing it.  If the Doctrine holds water, it would provide a way to say that acting in order to shorten a life may have one moral value or require one moral argument, but acting despite a foreseen shortening may have or require another.

Now: put that slightly to one side, but keep it simmering while we look at something else. more…

Even by the Mail’s Standards, this is Low

30 Nov, 12 | by Iain Brassington

The Liverpool Care Pathway provides a rubric for managing the care of the terminally ill as they approach death.  A helpful pamphlet explaining what it is and what it does is available here.  Ideally, I’d quote the lot; but for the sake of efficiency, I’ll make do with an edited quotation:

What is the Liverpool Care Pathway (LCP)?

The LCP is a pathway/ document that outlines this best care, irrespective of your relative/ friend’s diagnosis or whether they are dying at home, in hospital, in a hospice or a care home.

Medication/ treatment

Medication will be reviewed and any medication that is not helpful at this time may be stopped and new medication may be prescribed so that if a symptom should occur there would be no delay in responding.

It may not be possible to give medication by mouth at this time, so medication may be given by injection or sometimes if needed, by a continuous infusion by a small pump called a Syringe Driver, which will be tailored to individual needs.

It may not be appropriate to continue some tests at this time; these may include blood tests or blood pressure and temperature monitoring.

The staff should talk to you about maintaining your relative’s/ friend’s comfort; this should include discussion regarding position in bed, use of a special mattress and regular mouth care. You may want to be involved in elements of care at this time.

Diminished need for food and drink

Initially, as weakness develops, the effort of eating and drinking may simply have become too much and at this time help with feeding might be appreciated.

Your relative/friend will be supported to take food and fluids by mouth for as long as possible.

When someone stops eating and drinking it can be hard to accept, even when we know they are dying. It may be a physical sign that they are not going to get better. Your relative/friend may neither want or need food and/or drink and decisions about the use of artificial fluids (a drip) will be made in the best interests of your relative/friends for this moment in time. This decision will be explained to you and reviewed regularly.

This can be paraphrased further: medically futile treatment may be withdrawn; the main criterion for administering drugs will be symptom alleviation rather than life extension; some testing may be discontinued; it’s possible that there’ll come a point when artificial nutrition and hydration are no longer in the patient’s best interest, and they might be withdrawn if and when that point is reached.

None of this is particularly cheery; but death rarely is.  more…

Savita Halappanavar: A Woman who Died Needlessly, not a Political Wedge’

17 Nov, 12 | by BMJ

Guest post by Sorcha Uí Chonnachtaigh

I am going to, rather controversially, agree with one aspect of the statements of pro-life activists commenting on this case. That is not something I thought I’d ever say. Like, ever ever.

A statement issued by Youth Defence (one of Ireland’s most radical pro-life organisations) made the valid point that “Irish doctors are always obliged to intervene to save the life of a mother, even if that risks the life of her baby”. Because of some misconceptions about the reasons for Savita’s maltreatment, it is assumed that Ireland needs to reform its abortion law so that this never happens again.  While I would strongly support abortion law reform in Ireland, it is not necessary to ensure this never happens again.  Mere legal regulation of the status quo on abortion would prevent this.  As the (limited) law stands, this should never have happened at all. While some believe that legislation to regulate access to already lawful abortions constitutes law reform, any such legislation would not alter the current legal position – it would merely give meaningful access to abortions.

I don’t agree with anything else that has been included in pro-life posts/articles (stop throwing things at your computer screens), but more on that later.  First, I want to elaborate on this to clear up some of the misconceptions about Irish law that have been expressed in condemnations of the case around the web.

If you have clicked through to this post, it is very likely that you’ve already read about the facts of Savita’s case, first reported in the  Irish Times on 14 November, and at least some of the estensive commentary pieces available on the issues arising from this case (like this, and this, and this).  (These links here are to pieces by Irish people with more informed knowledge of the legal situation.)

For the sake of comprehensiveness, I’ll provide an edited summary of the facts of the case (as reported to the Irish Times by Savita’s husband Praveen): more…

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