After almost three decades of refusing to agree to it, Australian parliaments are slowly beginning to warm to the idea of voluntary assisted dying (VAD). Legislation has already been passed in Victoria and a number of people have now been able to end their lives under the legislation.
Legislation with similar requirements has also now passed in Western Australia, and is due to come into effect in 2021. Other States and Territories such as Queensland have held inquiries into the issue with parliamentary reports recommending legalisation. New Zealand will have a referendum on it later this year.
However, progress remains slow. The Queensland government has just responded to the recommendation of its parliamentary inquiry on Thursday. The Premier pointed out that VAD is "a deeply personal issue in which competing views of Queenslanders and experts have to be carefully balanced". For this reason she has delayed introduction of a bill, and referred the issue to the Queensland Law Reform Commission for further investigation.
The Premier is right that VAD is a deeply personal issue about which competing views of Queenslanders need to be carefully balanced. But we should keep the views of Queenslanders with the views of experts separate, as these views are about different things.
The views of the experts are largely about empirical, rather than personal, matters. An abiding feature of the VAD debate since the first bill was introduced in 1993 is the tendency view empirical matters as equivalent to personal ones. This has significantly impeded progress, and continues to do so in the UK parliaments and courts.
We need to carefully distinguish personal matters from empirical matters. So-called experts are no more qualified than you are or I am to talk about personal matters. By their very nature, these matters are to do with our own personal conscience, values and beliefs.
But experts are qualified to talk about the empirical matters, such as the possible impact of making VAD legal on 'the lives of our elderly and the most vulnerable people'. Both personal matters and empirical matters have a role to play in the VAD debate.
There are some ethical issues about which people can reasonably have different views on grounds of personal conscience.
You may practice a religion, and feel that allowing another human being to take someone's life is against your religion's ethical code. Or you might feel that there's a danger that we are disrespecting the miracle of life if we allow VAD. In parliamentary debates, this kind of view is sometimes expressed by MPs. In one debate, an MP said: "it is my understanding that God has a no kill policy".
I may not share that view. Not only may I not believe in any religion, but even if I do, I may think that my religion's ethical code should make an exception for people suffering unbearably. In our democratic society, we have come to tolerate people's right to hold and practice certain beliefs that are not shared by everyone – provided that the practice of such beliefs does not unduly harm others.
We might call such beliefs reasonable in a wide sense. Although we may personally dismiss such beliefs as false or misguided (and so unreasonable in a narrow sense), they are views about which we can rationally have a debate.
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