Two recent articles on euthanasia and assisted suicide in the Australian press serve to highlight the dilemma of the form of any legislation that might be proposed as well as the reality of what crossing the Rubicon of the prohibition on killing or assisting in suicide will mean for a society like ours.
Senator David Leyonhjelm (Assisted Suicide. OnLine Opinion, 8 Sept) poses the classical libertarian view (that: 'permission from government should not be required') whileThe Age writer, Julia Medew records the view of one of the doctors she interviews as seeking legislative control (Don't-tell doctors supporting secret euthanasia deaths The Age, 7 Sept).
Medew's premise is the classic shibboleth of 'it's happening now, so let's legalise it'.
That these two views on the same subject are contradictory, one to the other, serves to highlight the need for continued prohibition. Both views are utopian in essence – they cannot be attained no matter how much we might wish it were so.
Both are an appeal to autonomy. Leyonhjelm calls it 'individual freedom' and 'the right to die at the time of our choosing'. That last slogan and its many variations in use by the pro-euthanasia and assisted suicide lobby are modified for public consumption and for the sake of creating some legislative appeal in and through the presentation of limited legislative models. For example, access only for people with a terminal illness.
Leyonhjelm's libertarian view seems to be consistent with that of Philip Nitschke; that any adult of sound mind should have access to suicide methods. Nitschke's views (and Leyonhjelm's by default) are considered by their pro-euthanasia and assisted suicide lobbyist counterparts as 'unhelpful' to debate.
And so they are. Limited legislative models are a Trojan horse for a broader application. Whether such limitations are honestly held objectives or simply 'a foot in the door' matters little. Whereas proponents of a limited legislative model focus on an emotive case for a limited cohort, Nitschke's interventions run contrary to that kind of rhetoric. Nitschke and Leyonhjelm point to the ultimate reality, while the limited legislative thrust simply starts us off on the road to get there.
If we're arguing for a 'right-to-die' then the existence of such a 'right' creates philosophical and practical implications for any limited public policy that would discriminate against, for example, non-terminally ill people.
Medew's article offers us three examples of where doctors or relatives may well have crossed the line on assisting in suicide (not euthanasia as the article's title errantly suggests). Whether these people would have qualified under a limited model cannot be determined; but it would be foolhardy to assume that creating a limited model would stop any doctors from continuing to operate outside any extant framework in circumstances where their patients did not qualify.
If it's all about ending suffering and about a 'right-to-die' then Nitschke and Leyonhjelm are right. Roll on the next wave of revelations about doctors acting outside the law for 'compassionate' reasons or look to the inexorable bracket creep of euthanasia in places like Belgium or The Netherlands.
Interestingly, in two of the stories described in The Age article, Medew observes that the concerns of the women in question were not principally about pain at all. The first cited that 'she did not want to reach a point where she could not look after herself'; the second, 'feared being unable to remain in her home.' These are understandable concerns, but not, one would have thought, reason to apply the death sentence. Yet last week in The Netherlands a nursing home came under scrutiny for the euthanasia death of a woman who cited her fear of living in a nursing home as her primary reasoning for asking for someone to kill her. Add that to other examples from the Benelux countries of euthanasia for blindness, anorexia, loneliness and even in the dark throes of clinical depression, and the utopian ideal of a controlled legislative environment or even an absence of any possible maleficence (in a libertarian regimen) are really castles-in-the-air.
That there can be no 'right-to-die' seems to have escaped the thinking of all concerned. Nitschke once suggested that, just as there's a right enshrined in International Human Rights to 'freedom of religion' which implies 'freedom from religion', that the UN Human Rights Declaration of a 'right-to-life' implies a 'right-to-die'. This is simply nonsense. How can there be a 'right' to something that, by our very existence, will come to us all. Regardless of the rhetoric about 'at a time of our choosing', it is still predicated upon a right that does not and cannot exist. It is a house of cards.
If this article causes you any difficulties at all, please contact LIFELINE on 13 11 14 or SANE on 1800 18 7263 or BEYOND BLUE on 1300 22 4636. It was first published on Hope.
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Paul is also Vice Chair of the International Euthanasia Prevention Coalition