(Editorial) Assisted dying: a question of when, not if

Richard Hurley, Tessa Richards, Fiona Godlee

British Medical Journal


Doctors’ views on assisted dying are split, and most doctors’ organisations take no position on the issue; a few—including the BMA—oppose legalisation. Their stance matters: lawmakers and judges regularly seek, and listen to, their views. The BMJ has called for the professions’ representatives to take a position of neutrality—neither in support nor opposition—on the grounds that doctors should not obstruct a decision that is for society and parliament to make.

Engaged neutrality is far from an abdication of responsibility. It honours the diversity in professionals’ opinion. We believe that it also enables organisations to facilitate and fully engage with much needed societal conversations about death and what it means to die well.

Neutral organisations can be closely involved in drafting laws and guidelines, which would be impossible if they opposed their existence. They can lobby for the interests of doctors who do not wish to participate, as well as of doctors who do. . .

Hurley R, Richards T, Godlee F. (Editorial) Assisted dying: a question of when, not if. Br. Med. J. 2021;374(2128)

Euthanasia in the Netherlands: a claims data cross-sectional study of geographical variation

A. Stef Groenewoud, Femke Atsma, Mina Arvin, Gert P. Westert, Theo A. Boer

Euthanasia in the Netherlands: a claims data cross-sectional study of geographical variation


Background The annual incidence of euthanasia in the Netherlands as a percentage of all deaths rose from 1.9% in 1990 to 4.4% in 2017. Scarce literature on regional patterns calls for more detailed insight into the geographical variation in euthanasia and its possible explanations.

Objectives This paper (1) shows the geographical variation in the incidence of euthanasia over time (2013–2017); (2) identifies the associations with demographic, socioeconomic, preferential and health-related factors; and (3) shows the remaining variation after adjustment and discusses its meaning.

Design, setting and methods This cross-sectional study used national claims data, covering all healthcare claims during 12 months preceding the death of Dutch insured inhabitants who died between 2013 and 2017. From these claims all euthanasia procedures by general practitioners were selected (85% of all euthanasia cases). Rates were calculated and compared at three levels: 90 regions, 388 municipalities and 196 districts in the three largest Dutch cities. Data on possibly associated variables were retrieved from national data sets. Negative binomial regression analysis was performed to identify factors associated with geographical variation in euthanasia.

Results There is considerable variation in euthanasia ratio. Throughout the years (2013–2017) the ratio in the three municipalities with the highest incidence was 25 times higher than in the three municipalities with the lowest incidence. Associated factors are age, church attendance, political orientation, income, self-experienced health and availability of voluntary workers. After adjustment for these characteristics a considerable amount of geographical variation remains (factor score of 7), which calls for further exploration.

Conclusion The Netherlands, with 28 years of legal euthanasia, experiences large-scale unexplained geographical variation in the incidence of euthanasia. Other countries that have legalised physician-assisted dying or are in the process of doing so may encounter similar patterns. The unexplained part of the variation may include the possibility that part of the euthanasia practice may have to be understood in terms of underuse, overuse or misuse.

Groenewoud AS, Atsma F, Arvin M, Westert GP, Boer TA. Euthanasia in the Netherlands: a claims data cross-sectional study of geographical variation BMJ Support Palliat Care. 2021 Jan 14:bmjspcare-2020-002573. doi: 10.1136/bmjspcare-2020-002573. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33446488.

The Declaration of Geneva: Conscience, Dignity and Good Medical Practice

Sean Murphy, Ramona Coelho, Philippe D. Violette, Ewan C. Goligher, Timothy Lau, Sheila Rutledge Harding, Rene Leiva

World Medical Journal

Since 1948 the Declaration of Geneva (the Declaration) has insisted that physicians must practise medicine “with conscience and dignity.” In 2017 this provision was modified by adding, “and in accordance with good medical practice” [1].

Good medical practice in Canada is said to include providing euthanasia and assisted suicide or arranging for someone else to do so. From this perspective, physicians who cannot in conscience kill their patients or collaborate in killing are not acting “in accordance with good medical practice,” and – some might say – the revised Declaration.

However, this merely literal application of the text cannot be correct, since the WMA later reaffirmed its support for physicians who refuse to provide or refer for euthanasia and assisted suicide even where they are considered good medical practice [2]. A reading informed by the history of the document is necessary and consistent with the care taken in its revision [1]. This yields a rational and coherent account of the relationship of conscience and dignity to medical practice.

Murphy S, Coelho R, Violette PD, Goligher EC, Lau T, Harding SR, Leiva R. The Declaration of Geneva: Conscience, Dignity and Good Medical Practice . WMJ [Internet]. 2020 Aug; 66(4): 43-47.

The “Normalization” of Euthanasia in Canada: the Cautionary Tale Continues

Leonie Herx, Margaret Cottle, John Scott

World Medical Journal


This paper will balance recent portrayals in the popular and medical media that imply only a positive impact as a result of the introduction of euthanasia into Canada’s health system [3–4]. Evidence will be presented to demonstrate that there are significant negative and dangerous consequences of this radical shift for medicine, and particularly for palliative medicine. These include the widening and loosening of already ambiguous eligibility criteria, the lack of adequate and appropriate safeguards, the erosion of conscience protection for health care professionals, and the failure of adequate over- sight, review and prosecution for non-compliance with the legislation. Indeed, what we have seen over the past four years is that “the slope has in fact proved every bit as slippery as the critics had warned” . . . Euthanasia is not the panacea that proponents promise. Its legalization and subsequent rapid normalization have had serious negative effects on Canadian medicine and on Canadian society as a whole. We urge the WMA and our colleagues around the world to look beyond the simplistic media reports and to monitor developments in Canada carefully and wisely before making any changes in their own country’s legal frame- work for medical practice.

Herx L, Cottle M, Scott J. The “Normalization” of Euthanasia in Canada: the Cautionary Tale Continues. World Medical Journal020. 2020;66(2):28-37.

Conscientious objection and moral distress: a relational ethics case study of MAiD in Canada

Mary Kathleen Deutscher Heilman, Tracy J. Trothen

Conscientious objection and moral distress: a relational ethics case study of MAiD in Canada

Abstract: Conscientious objection has become a divisive topic in recent bioethics publications. Discussion has tended to frame the issue in terms of the rights of the healthcare professional versus the rights of the patient. However, a rights-based approach neglects the relational nature of conscience, and the impact that violating one’s conscience has on the care one provides. Using medical assistance in dying as a case study, we suggest that what has been lacking in the discussion of conscientious objection thus far is a recognition and prioritising of the relational nature of ethical decision-making in healthcare and the negative consequences of moral distress that occur when healthcare professionals find themselves in situations in which they feel they cannot provide what they consider to be excellent care. We propose that policies that respect the relational conscience could benefit our healthcare institutions by minimising the negative impact of moral distress, improving communication among team members and fostering a culture of ethical awareness. Constructive responses to moral distress including relational cultivation of moral resilience are urged.

Heilman MKD, Trothen TJ. Conscientious objection and moral distress: a relational ethics case study of MAiD in Canada. J Med Ethics. 2020;46(2):123-127. doi:10.1136/medethics-2019-105855

The Independence of Judicial Conscience

Barry W. Bussey

The Independence of Judicial Conscience

. . . Competence and character are no longer the sole criteria for evaluating a judicial nominee; candidates face a climate which demands they have the “correct” moral opinions on fundamental human rights issues. Those
issues include abortion, marriage, and the euphemistically-termed Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD). . . to disregard the judicial conscience is to compromise the dignity of the judge, the worth of her convictions, the fullness of her humanity. Even more, it undermines the very essence of what distinguishes a democratic society characterized by diversity, inclusion, and freedom.

Bussey BW. The Independence of Judicial Conscience. J Christian Legal Thought. 2019; 9(2): 34-37.

Colorado End-of-Life Options Act

A Clash of Organizational and Individual Conscience

Matthew Wynia

Journal of the American Medical Association

The 2016 Colorado End-of-Life Options Act includes a provision unique among states with such laws, specifically privileging individual health care professionals, including physicians and pharmacists, to choose whether to write and fill prescriptions for life-ending medications, such as high-dose secobarbital or various combinations of morphine, diazepam, beta-blockers, and digoxin, without regard to the position their employer has taken on the law. This provision virtually guaranteed the Colorado law would eventually be challenged, which happened in August 2019.1 The current legal case directly pits the conscience rights of individual health care professionals against those of religiously affiliated corporations. Because 5 of the top 10 US hospital systems by net revenue are now religiously affiliated,2 and these systems often restrict medical care in a variety of ways,3 how the case is resolved could have far-reaching implications for US health care, extending well beyond the relatively rare use of aid-in-dying medications at the end of life.

Wynia M. Colorado End-of-Life Options Act: A Clash of Organizational and Individual Conscience. JAMA. 2019;322(20):1953-1954. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.16438

Débats entourant l’objection de conscience : le cas du don d’organes après l’aide médicale à mourir au Québec

Julie Allard, Marie-Chantal Fortin

Débats entourant l’objection de conscience : le cas du don d’organes après l’aide médicale à mourir au Québec


Depuis décembre 2015, l’aide médicale à mourir, une pratique au centre de nombreux débats éthiques, est légalisée dans la province du Québec, au Canada. Ce nouveau type de décès a créé un tout nouveau contexte pour le don d’organes, soit le don d’organes après l’aide médicale à mourir. Le prélèvement des organes s’effectue alors suivant le protocole habituel du don d’organes après décès cardiocirculatoire contrôlé (catégorie Maastricht III), un protocole qui suscitait déjà de nombreux questionnements médico-éthiques. En outre, l’amalgame des deux pratiques soulève de nouveaux enjeux éthiques qui peuvent se traduire par des objections de conscience chez les médecins directement impliqués dans l’aide médicale à mourir et/ou le don d’organes. Or, une telle objection de conscience peut-elle être acceptable ? Nous tenterons de répondre à cette question en trois temps : d’abord, par un bref historique de l’objection de conscience ; ensuite, par une revue des débats actuels sur ce sujet ; enfin, par l’examen, à l’aide de critères recensés dans la littérature, de cas où les médecins refuseraient de participer au don d’organes après l’aide médicale à mourir.


Medical assistance in dying, a much debated practice in ethical literature, is practiced since 2015 in the province of Québec, Canada. Its practice has opened the door to organ donation after medical assistance in dying. This type of donation is possible through donation after controlled cardiocirculatory death (Maastricht III category), a procedure that also raises many ethical questions. Combining these two practices raises new ethical issues and could therefore generate conscientious objections from physicians directly involved in medical assistance in dying and/or organ donation. Would conscientious objection be acceptable in this context? To answer this question, we present a brief history of conscientious objection, an overview of the actual debates on conscientious objection and we will examine the case of the physician who would object to participate in organ donation after medical assistance in dying using existing criteria.

Allard J, Forin M.-C. Débats entourant l’objection de conscience : le cas du don d’organes après l’aide médicale à mourir au Québec. Éthique & Santé; 2019 Sep; 16(3): 125-132

Physician-Assisted Suicide and the Perils of Empirical Ethical Research

Daniel P. Sulmasy

Journal of the American Medical Association

Al Rabadi et al1 compare statistics on physician-assisted suicide (PAS) available from public databases for the states of Washington and Oregon and find similar profiles and trends, which is unsurprising given the similarity of the laws and demographic characteristics of these states. Among the unanswered questions are what such a study can contribute to medical ethics (about PAS or any other ethical controversy) and what the limits are of such work.


First, it should be noted that the medical literature is, in general, favorably disposed toward the empirical and the new. Although this predilection is often advantageous for scientific progress, it introduces a problematic bias when applied to ethical questions. The appeal of the study by Al Rabadi et al1 is that it is empirical, and by comparing data from 2 states for the first time, it can be considered novel. Because there are new reports each year and the practice of PAS is legal in only a few states, descriptive reports about PAS are published frequently. This means, however, that articles defending the ethical status quo (ie, against PAS) tend to be shut out of the medical literature because they are not reporting anything new and, therefore, cannot have any data. The result is an impression of growing acceptance of PAS, but it really represents an artifact of a scientific bias. . . . [Full text]

Sulmasy DP. Physician-Assisted Suicide and the Perils of Empirical Ethical Research. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(8):e198628. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.8628

Survival of Patients With Liver Transplants Donated After Euthanasia, Circulatory Death, or Brain Death at a Single Center in Belgium

Nicholas Gilbo, Ina Jochmans, Daniel Jacobs-Tulleneers-Thevissen, Albert Wolthuis, Mauricio Sainz-Barriga, Jacques Pirenne, Diethard Monbaliu

Journal of the American Medical Association


Transplantation of organs donated after euthanasia may help alleviate the critical organ shortage.1 However, aside from preliminary data on lung transplantation,2 data on graft and patient survival following transplantation of organs donated after euthanasia are unavailable. Because donation after euthanasia entails a period of detrimental warm ischemia that hampers graft survival, similar to donation after circulatory death,3 results after transplantation of this type of graft need to be carefully evaluated.

Gilbo N, Jochmans I, Jacobs-Tulleneers-Thevissen D, Wolthuis A, Sainz-Barriga M, Pirenne  J, Monbaliu D.  Survival of Patients With Liver Transplants Donated After Euthanasia, Circulatory Death, or Brain Death at a Single Center in Belgium. JAMA. 2019;322(1):78-80. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.6553