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LIFE DIGEST: Health officials redefine assisted suicide; doctor commits euthanasia in Italy; rights for robots predicted

WASHINGTON (BP)–When is physician-assisted suicide not really suicide? Apparently when medical professionals say it isn’t.

The American Public Health Association has joined the Oregon Department of Human Services in redefining the act of a terminally ill person taking drugs to kill himself. Terms such as “suicide” or “physician-assisted suicide” should be rejected in favor of such phrases as “aid in dying” or “patient-directed dying,” the APHA decided in a resolution announced Dec. 20.

The APHA’s Governing Council adopted the resolution in early November as an interim policy until it is confirmed in 2007. The resolution calls on reporters, public policy makers and medical personnel to use the “value-neutral terms” to describe a “mentally competent, terminally ill” person taking his own life.

The council cited in its resolution Oregon’s October decision to halt the use of “physician-assisted suicide” to describe those who take their own lives with the aid of lethal prescriptions from doctors. Instead, the state’s Department of Human Services will refer to such people as “persons who use the Oregon Death With Dignity Act.”

Oregon, the only state that has legalized assisted suicide, has recorded 246 deaths by such means since its Death With Dignity Act took effect in late 1997.

Wesley Smith, a bioethics specialist and lawyer, decried the euphemistic sleight of hand.

“This is pure politics, of course,” Smith wrote on the bioethics.com web log. “It isn’t medicine. And it isn’t health.”

A “surreal world” is being entered, he said. “Words mean nothing other than what we want them to at the moment, and this is changeable from moment to moment. Clocks run backwards. Up is down, and east is west. The moon is made of blue cheese, if that serves our purposes. And the basic institutions of society are being steadily corrupted.”

The APHA, founded in 1872, represents more than 50,000 members in about 50 public health occupations.

EUTHANASIA IN ITALY — A doctor has acknowledged he turned off the life support machine of Piergiorgio Welby, a muscular dystrophy patient who died Dec. 20.

Welby, 60, had sought euthanasia in a high-profile case but was denied the right by a court, according to BBC News. A judge had ruled Dec. 16 Welby had the right to have the life support machine turned off, but doctors would be legally required to revive him, the BBC reported.

Mario Riccio, a physician, said he fulfilled Welby’s wish but denied it was euthanasia. “This must not be mistaken for euthanasia,” Riccio said in a Rome news conference, according to the BBC. “Refusing treatment is a right. In Italian hospitals therapies are suspended all the time, and this does not lead to any intervention from magistrates or to problems of conscience.”

Euthanasia is illegal in Italy, and the Roman Catholic Church denied a religious funeral for Welby. The Associated Press reported the Rome Diocese said it declined the family’s request for a religious funeral because of Welby’s “repeated and publicly affirmed” effort to take his own life, an act the church opposes.

The Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland are countries that permit euthanasia.

MULTIPLE ABORTIONS — More than 100 teen-aged girls a month are undergoing their second abortions in England or Wales, and at least one female under 18 years of age has had six abortions.

The Independent, a London newspaper, reported the following 2005 statistics gained under a Freedom of Information request from the Department of Health:

— 1,316 girls under 18 had their second abortions.

— 90 minors had their third abortions.

— 44 women, including 20 less than 30 years old, had undergone at least eight abortions by the end of the year.

RIGHTS FOR ROBOTS — Robots may vote and be entitled to healthcare in 50 years.

No, this is not intended as a joke. It is a serious prediction in a study commissioned by Great Britain’s Office of Science and Innovation’s Horizon Scanning Center.

The predictions for developments by 2056 include an examination of the potential advances in artificial intelligence. The paper predicts a “monumental shift” could take place if robots develop the ability to reproduce or upgrade themselves, according to the BBC.

If such an advancement occurs, robots could be granted voting rights, be provided housing and healthcare benefits, and be required to pay taxes and serve in the military, the BBC reported.

No joke.