NRL News

The power of biased words to tilt treatment away from the medically dependent

by | Sep 29, 2016

By Dave Andrusko

This was to be a short post. The graphic, reproduced below, is the story. But the more I thought about it, the longer this post became.

“Medscape” (as explained by Nancy Valko) is “a password-protected website for medical professionals.”

Nancy alludes in her post to a 2014 survey of over 21,000 American and European doctors responding to a question about whether they supported assisted suicide.

The wording is seemingly straightforward–“Should physician-assisted suicide be allowed?” For the first time, alas, a majority said yes.


But to show you the power of a biased description to slant responses, consider another question asked in the same survey:

“Is it right to provide intensive care to a newborn who will either die soon or will survive but will have an objectively terrible quality of life?”

The responses were yes–31%; no–27%; “it depends”—43%.

Good gracious. Let’s think this through.

More often than doctors would like to admit, newborns who were “supposed” to die, don’t. But if a doctor doesn’t come out of their situation thankful, he or she is likely ready to be told the child will have “an objectively terrible quality of life.”

And to state the obvious, “terrible” to whom? The family, the child, or the physician?

The survey offered a few illustrative comments, all but one were highly negative. For example, one talked about the costs of caring for the child, another about not “torturing “ the child “even at the request of their families.”

Only one response went beyond medical paternalism and disrespect for children born seriously ill.

“What, are we playing God now? How in the world do we know who will have a terrible life? There are many physically healthy people who are miserable and many physically challenged people who lead very meaningful lives.”

However it’s worth remembering that there is some good, more recent news.

Regular readers of NRL News Today may recall a piece I posted last month under the headline, “New study finds outcomes for babies born with trisomy 13 and trisomy 18 ‘not as lethal as docs once said.’”

It even had an impact on influential bioethicist Thaddeus Pope. Pope picked up on the editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association [“Trisomy 13 and 18–Treatment Decisions in a Stable Gray Zone”] which commented on the findings of the study.


Pope’s one-sentence introduction is absolutely accurate:

John Lantos shows that what was long framed a “futile” is really just a value judgment framed as a medical judgment.

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Pope (a fervent believer in “futile care” theory) then quotes Lantos’ opening two paragraphs:

“Thirty years ago, pediatric residents were taught that trisomy 13 and 18 were lethal congenital anomalies. Parents were told that these conditions were incompatible with life. There was a tacit consensus that life-sustaining treatment was not medically indicated. Clinical experience usually was consistent with this self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“But with social media, this changed. Parents share stories and videos, showing their happy 4 and 5 year old children with these conditions. Survival, it turns out, is not as rare as once thought.” While median survival is just 12 days, 13% of children with trisomy 12 survive to 10 years. And they “smile and laugh.”

Pope’s response?

I am on the same page with Lantos and even with my frequent adversary Alex Schadenberg on this one. [Alex is the International Chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.]

With this in mind, compared to the 2014 survey, we have reason to believe a more optimistic, life-affirming, perspective on children born with serious medical maladies may be emerging.

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Categories: Assisted Suicide