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Dr Peter Saunders

Some Big Public Policy Challenges in Bioethics we can expect in 2018

Dr Peter Saunders is CMF Chief Executive and was formerly a general surgeon. He also serves on the boards of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association and Coalition for Marriage and is campaign director for the Care Not Killing Alliance.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

As we look forward to the challenges that 2018 will bring I am struggling to think of a time when we have faced more major public policy challenges in bioethics in so many areas all at once.

This is perhaps inevitable given the march of secular humanism through parliament, the courts and institutions.

Here is some background on the five major threats currently looming.

  1. Assisted Suicide 

Given that 11 attempts in British Parliaments to change the law to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia have failed since 2003 our opponents, not surprisingly, have shifted their attention to the courts in an attempt to change the law through the back door.

Conway, who has motor neurone disease and is seeking assisted suicide, lost his case in which CNK Alliance intervened in the Divisional Court in October, and his appeal to the High Court was denied. He now plans to appeal directly to the Court of Appeal. See my previous comments on the case here.

Omid, who has multiple system atrophy and is also seeking assisted suicide, had a preliminary hearing on 21 November and has appealed to the judges to allow a full enquiry in which all witnesses can be cross-examined along the lines of the Carter case in Canada. We await their decision.

There have been three worrying judgements by the Court of Protection in the last few months (see here and here). Formerly all patients with Permanent Vegetative State (PVS) and Minimally Conscious State (MCS) had to go to court for appeals about the removal of artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH), but now there are moves to withdraw ANH from these and less severely brain-damaged patients who are not imminently dying without going to court provided that both doctors and relatives agree that it is in the patient’s ‘best interests’. The Official Solicitor will appeal these judgements in the Supreme Court on 29 January. My fuller review is here.

A recent case involving a pharmacist (Desai) who helped his father end his life with a morphine and insulin overdose resulted only in a nine-month suspended sentence. The general trend is toward fewer prosecutions and convictions for assisted suicide and the DPP’s prosecution criteria on assisted suicide are being interpreted very liberally.

  1. Abortion

The ‘We Trust Women’ campaign (masterminded by Ann Furedi of BPAS) is gaining momentum and now has the support of the RCOG, BMA and RCM. Whilst there is no bill currently before Parliament (and none likely to appear before 2019) proabortion activists may seek to amend a government health bill to achieve their aim of completely decriminalising abortion (see my previous posts here, here, here and here).

This will most likely involve repealing Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (OAPA) which make procuring an abortion for oneself or others a crime punishable by life imprisonment. The effect would be to make abortion legal for any reason up to 28 weeks and, if the Infant Life (Preservation Act) 1929 is repealed too, up to birth.

Were this to succeed the Abortion Act 1967 with all its provisions (two doctors, licensed premises, reporting, conscience clause etc) would fall as it is contingent upon the OAPA.

There are also calls to relax the abortion laws in Northern Ireland, Ireland and the Isle of Man.

  1. Organ transplantation

Geoffrey Robinson MP wants to bring in an opt-out system for organ donation in England. His Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill is due its second reading (debate stage) on 23 February 2018.

In ‘deemed’ (presumed) consent, a person, unless he or she specifically ‘opts out’, is assumed to have given consent to the harvest of their organs after death, even if their wishes are not known. Although relatives may be consulted (a so called ‘soft’ opt out), to ascertain any wishes of the deceased expressed before death, their views can still be overruled by the state should they decide against transplantation. Wales already operates an opt-out system for organ donation and it is likely that Scotland will follow.

Robinson’s private member’s bill may be overtaken by a new government bill seeking to achieve the same thing. The government has just launched a consultation, closing on 6 March 2018, which proposes ‘changing the current law on organ donation consent whilst also allowing people to opt out if they want to’. Both Theresa May, the prime minister and Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition have signalled support and a Daily Mirror Campaign has built support.

However, evidence for the claim that an opt-out system will increase transplants is still lacking. In Wales, where an opt-out system was introduced in December 2015, there has been a small dip in the number of deceased donors. The Nuffield Council advised in October that robust evidence is needed before any change to the law is considered. But it is also unethical.

Donation must be without coercion and the final decision must lie with the family based on what the person would have wanted, if this is known. Organs are not the property of the state and must not be ‘taken’ without permission, however needy any prospective recipient may be (see previous CMF articles and blog posts here, here and here)

  1. Transgender

Under the Gender Recognition Act 2014, to change gender legally, one must have lived in one’s chosen gender for two years, be 18 or over, have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and appear before a gender recognition panel.

Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for Education, Women and Equalities, wants to allow people to change their gender purely based on self-declaration without having to see a doctor nor appear before a gender recognition panel.

A consultation toward this end has been announced and is to be launched shortly. A Scottish consultation is already underway and closes on 1 March.

She has the support of both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn although there is now some resistance growing and recent reports suggest that Greening may be having second thoughts (see further comment here and here).

  1. Freedom of Conscience in healthcare

Currently there is statutory conscience protection for health professionals only for involvement in abortion and activities authorised under the Human fertilisation and Embryology Act. The scope of the former is restricted because of a Supreme Court judgement on the case of two Glasgow midwives.

Freedom of conscience for other activities (eg. Hormones for transgender, abortifacient contraceptives, PrEP, withdrawal of ANH etc) is covered only partially by equality legislation.

There were two significant victories on freedom of conscience last year. The General Pharmaceutical Council, which regulates Pharmacists and Pharmacies, modified new guidance which would have replaced a ‘right to refer’ with a ‘duty to dispense’, in response to protests from interest groups (see my previous comment here).

The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health (FSRH), part of the RCOG, reversed regulations which denied those with conscience objections to some contraceptives, from obtaining its diplomas. This appeared to be in response to criticism by CMF.

These two wins underline the fact that conscience freedom depends on constant vigilance.

Baroness O’Loan’s Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill is to have its second reading in the House of Lords on 26 January 2018. Although this bill is much narrower in scope than we would have preferred (covering only abortion, IVF and related technologies and withdrawal of treatment) it has our support.

So, a busy year awaits. Watch this space for further developments.

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