The ICEL conference for Law, Ethics, Policy and practice was hosted by Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane last week and was a notable event in a number of ways. There was a stellar cast of plenary and concurrent speakers including such international experts as Prof Jocelyn Downie (@jgdownie), Prof Sheila McLean, and Dr Dale Gardiner and Dr Peter Saul and Prof Michael Ashby from Australia (check twitter for #2014ICEL for a complete run-down of the topics and issues over the two days, or http://bit.ly/ICELPhotos if you would rather just look at the pictures). ICEL brought a multi-disciplinary focus to issues surrounding the end of life, and was not afraid to ask the big questions including the appropriateness of euthanasia, and who should be determining futility.
The opening debate between Prof Charlie Camosy (@nohiddenmagenta) and Prof Peter Singer (@PeterSinger) was a marvellous demonstration of the spirit of this event. Charlie Camosy and Peter Singer see the world in fundamentally different ways and their perspectives on euthanasia (the subject of the debate) are polar. Peter Singer sees this as a question essentially related to society’s need to support the decision making of rational individuals, while Charlie Camosy is concerned about the harms of such support particularly to vulnerable persons and to the meaning of healthcare. The audience seemed equally divided, and yet this debate remained just that – a debate, a dialogue discussing complex questions and searching for common ground and understanding.
This enthusiasm to ask questions and explore ideas was, I think, the most important aspect of this conference. Lawyers, ethicists, researchers, policy-makers, and clinicians from a range of persuasions shared research, queried assumptions and debated future directions, on papers covering both the theoretical and practical aspects of these topics. As with any deeply complex and morally rooted questions there are no definite right answers, and no complete consensus from the attendees and yet a spirit of open and constructive dialogue was managed throughout the affair.
A standout presentation that speaks to the importance of this issue for palliative care during the two days was by Linda Sheahan (a palliative medicine physician and bioethicist from Sydney) who was presenting on the ethics of euthanasia practice. Regardless of where you sit in this particular debate, Linda raised the important point that the very presence of the big end of life questions calls for us as palliative care clinicians, researchers and healthcarers to engage with the dialogue, so that it can be informed by us, and so that we can be informed by it. For me this seems a challenge to all of us who care about the palliative care of all persons in our society to ask the big questions, and explore the uncertainties together. Let’s hope that more events like the ICEL conference can help us continue that dialogue.