Suicide row hits Aids research

九月 10, 1999

A PhD student who has been carrying out ground-breaking research into assisted suicides and euthanasia among Britons with Aids is in dispute with Exeter University over guaranteeing the anonymity of his sources.

Supporters of Russel Ogden, a Canadian criminologist, believe his to be a landmark case in pursuit of academic freedom.

His research relied on providing confidentiality for his sources.

"Somebody who is telling me they have either assisted the suicide of a friend or have killed a friend out of compassion is liable to very serious criminal sanctions and they are aware their disclosures to me increase their risk of discovery. Without guarantees of confidentiality it would be impossible and the support of the institution for such guarantees is vital," said Mr Ogden.

His complaints, which he claims led to the abandonment of his PhD work, will be adjudicated by an Exeter University committee of academic inquiry during a three-day hearing beginning on Wednesday.

The dispute echoes a previous row in Canada that blew up around Mr Ogden's masters thesis at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, which documented the circumstances surrounding 34 assisted deaths among people with Aids. It made international headlines but also brought demands from a coroner for the names of people interviewed by Mr Ogden in connection with one of the cases.

Mr Ogden mounted a successful legal defence against contempt after refusing to reveal his sources but was dismayed that his own university failed to support him.

He subsequently failed in a bid to sue SFU to recover his costs but the institution then apologised, paid him compensation plus Can$10,000 (Pounds 4,150) in legal costs and introduced an ethical code guaranteeing academics and research students full support over confidentiality.

Moving to Exeter University in 1995, Mr Ogden started to examine patterns of assisted suicides and euthanasia in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Holland.

But after two years of research a row broke out over the university's support for his guarantees of anonymity, leading to his departure a year later in July 1998.

A statement from Exeter University said: "Mr Ogden has made a complaint against the university regarding matters concerning his period of study as a PhD student of the university. A committee of academic inquiry chaired by a deputy vice-chancellor has been established by the senate of the university to consider his complaint."

John Lowman, a British-born professor of criminology at SFU who has become an authority on research-participant confidentiality as a result of his support for Mr Ogden, said it was a tragedy to see history seemingly repeating itself.

"The choice is simple - you either give an unqualified guarantee of anonymity or you do not do this sort of research. If a university capitulates at that point, it has compromised academic freedom and sold out its raison d'etre," Professor Lowman said.

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