It was GK Chesterton who said, “Throughout the ages we have spoken about having the courage to die; now we have descended into talking about having the courage to live.”
Over the past 20 years there have been 16 attempts to legalise euthanasia in South Australia. Each time it has been rejected.
Euthanasia is presented in many shapes and forms but is united in a single idea: it is the intentional ending of a person’s life. Over the years this has been cloaked with many euphemisms—’the right to die’, ‘mercy killing’, ‘dying with dignity’, and so on.
In the era of Covid-19, this latest euthanasia push in the SA Parliament gives rise to not one but two paradoxes – ‘protecting and preserving human life at all costs’ and ‘suicide prevention programs’.
Notwithstanding the massive burdens inflicted on the community, throughout the pandemic governments have said their primary aim has been community safety and that the preservation of life matters more than anything else. Governments opted for the health and security of the vulnerable over appeals from business owners and libertarians.
Which brings us to the latest attempt to legalise euthanasia in SA.
It begs the question, “At what age does a person no longer qualify for a suicide prevention program but enters into a suicide facilitation program?”
Now the poll we so often hear is that “70 – 80 per cent of people support dying with dignity”. Yet I wonder what the result would be if a different question were asked. For example, “Faced with a terminal illness, should we care for the patient, or kill the patient?” Polls can be designed to get whatever result the pollster wants.
Like any piece of legislation, the sensible place to start is with the facts. What is euthanasia? What is not euthanasia? Herein lies great confusion in the community, particularly when asked to consider opinion polls. Before considering what euthanasia is, let’s begin with defining what euthanasia is not. The Australian Medical Association policy on euthanasia spells out what euthanasia is not. None of the following is euthanasia: not initiating life-prolonging measures eg using a heart defibrillator; not continuing life-support measures, such as turning off life-support equipment; not offering futile care, such as ceasing prescription medication; the administration of treatment or other action intended to relieve symptoms which may have a secondary consequence of hastening death, commonly known as the doctrine of double effect, such as the administration of strong morphine dosage. None of these is euthanasia.
Almost every Australian knows of a usually elderly relative, perhaps even a close relative, who has died and the difficulty in seeing them die. That most likely informs their view on euthanasia. But no poll seeks to explain to them properly what euthanasia is and is not. People who are polled are also dismissive because they are not faced, at that moment, with an end-of-life decision. Lawyers tell us that, when preparing what are now known as ‘advanced care directives’, clients are, before proper advice, quite dismissive about their care options. ‘Just flick the switch’, they say with a smile. But when they or a loved one are faced with a situation it is not that simple.
It is fashionable to talk of ‘a dignified death’. But death itself is a wholly undignified and tragic reality. It is also a very personal reality, one that cannot be resolved by its acceleration. To burden doctors, who are agents of healing and life, by forcing them to participate in premature death, in killing, is a distortion of their vocation. Worse still, forcing them to do so against their conscience is a dangerous path indeed.
Terminally ill people are often overwhelmed, depressed, easily influenced and extremely vulnerable. In truth, they have far less autonomy during this time than at any other time in their lives. It is very likely that they will require their families and friends to routinely assist in their care. Tending to the needs of sick loved ones and sticking with them to the end is a dignified display of love and selflessness. Most importantly, it is a witness to outsiders of sacrificial love and familial obligation. For those who do the caring it forges a character of resilience, enabling them to persevere in times of trial. For those who do the dying, opportunities develop to reconsider past hurts and biases and for reconciliation and making peace. End-of-life moments can be the most powerful healing moments for the dying person and their loved ones.
Assisted dying offers an alternative – evasion and abandonment. Family and friends cannot face the emotional investment or the painful reality of suffering. Even in the most loving of families, there are requests for doctors to refrain from dragging things out. It is often not the dying person but the family member who wants the suffering to end. In worst cases, there are ulterior motives for wanting the death of a relative. We are only beginning to understand the extent of elder abuse. We have to realise that in some cases what began as a well-intentioned exercise in being a carer for another person can become such a burden that dark thoughts and schemes develop, particularly where money is involved—be it real estate, funds, or the proceeds of a life insurance policy or policies. No matter how many safeguards, checks or balances there are, the hunger for power, revenge or money can steer its way around many hurdles. According to the 2020 Aged Care Royal Commission, the systemic neglect of the elderly is so pervasive the whole sector should be ripped up and started again!
The overseas experience is also cause for grave concern with studies revealing serious shortcomings around consent safeguards. Professor Cohen-Almagor of the UK’s Hull University discovered that life-ending drugs are administered to people without explicit consent. This involuntary euthanasia is despite strict provisions which were supposed to guarantee voluntary euthanasia. Tragically, even children are becoming caught up in cultures transformed by these laws. The Netherlands, for example, permits children as young as 12 to be killed and Belgium has no age restrictions whatsoever.
The writing is on the wall: so-called ‘safeguards’ have not prevented a comprehensive weakening of medical and legal standards. What was intended for the elderly has now become available to all ages. What was intended for physical illness is now for mental illness. What was intended for terminal illness is now for serious illness. What was intended to be consensual is now non-consensual. Soon, euthanasia will be available for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all.
The weight of evidence is an embarrassing rebuke to advocates of so-called ‘safeguards’. There are none. And once people have adjusted to a so-called ‘new normal’ the safeguards will be continually reviewed and seen as intolerant and cruel, and should be removed. We do not have to turn to other nations to see this in action. It has happened in Australia. Some of the people euthanised under Northern Territory legislation from 1995 were not even terminally ill.
When referring to the Northern Territory, we should note its higher percentage of Aboriginal people—many of whom do not live near hospitals. Aboriginal people do not like euthanasia, and legislating it in South Australia will create an environment where they might be disinclined to seek health treatment for fear of involuntary euthanasia. Many people believe in supernatural healing. For some, euthanasia is sorcery and against customary law. Submissions from Aboriginal people to the Northern Territory Select Committee on Euthanasia were overwhelmingly against it. One submission from a Yolngu woman stated:
“We were and are nomads, hunters, food gatherers, ceremonial and cultural people who will give comfort and tender loving care to our terminally ill relatives.”
“Because our terminally ill relatives know that they are dying they usually want songs to be sung, they want to hear the last sound of their traditional songs and the sound of the didgeridoo and clapsticks.”
In summary, the Australian Family Party opposes euthanasia. Euthanasia does not provide the dignity its advocates claim. Human beings are built to live and survive, and the deliberate ending of a life prematurely removes value and worth. Euthanasia is the wrong way to treat those who are old and sick. The Australian Family Party is committed to supporting palliative care programs which enable people to live with dignity for the whole of their lives. Vulnerable patients dependent on medical professionals for their health should not be subject to proposals of premature death.