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Why I reject legalised euthanasia

25/09/2013

If ‘likes’ are anything to go by my blogposts against legalising euthanasia are about the least popular ones I make. In the past two decades support for legalising euthanasia in Australia has climbed from about 65% to over 80% so I am definitely part of an increasingly unpopular minority, especially among colleagues on the progressive side of politics.

But I’ve never been in the business of winning popularity contests, so this is another post about why I think euthanasia should stay illegal.

I’ll start by spelling out some of the inconsistencies in my own position.

I categorically support the right to abortion on demand, even to late term. The distinction between a just-about-to-be-born foetus and a newborn baby is arbitrary but I am still against killing a newborn no matter how serious his/her birth defects may be. The reason is because the distinction between a newborn and a one day old is also arbitrary as is the distinction between a one day and one week old … Also the distinction between a severely disabled baby and the distinction between a slightly less disabled one …

Yep, I’m invoking the slippery slope argument here – or rather that of function creep – and I believe it’s entirely valid to do so.You’ve got to draw the line somewhere and I think moment of birth is not necessarily the most rational one but it is the clearest. So that’s where I draw it.

I absolutely support the right to take your own life or to refuse medical treatment. I would go further than Australian law currently does and insist that those rights should be extended to those deemed mentally ill, though I think encouraging others to refuse treatment or kill themselves should be condemned and – where practical – prosecuted. Those who made a national media circus of Nancy Crick‘s upcoming suicide should, in my opinion, have gone to prison. If they wanted to turn her into a cause celebré they should have had the basic decency to wait until she was dead. We don’t need suicide as a form of reality TV.

The inconsistency there is that there is a very small number of people who are physically unable to kill themselves and I agree that it is tragic that those people are stuck with life whether they want it or not. But I do not think the relief legalised euthanasia might provide this tiny minority justifies the harm it would be likely to cause many others.

I think that in most cases the doctors who are currently illegally ending the lives of those in suffering – as well as those who are legally doing it via the ‘pain relief’ loophole – are doing the right thing. But I want them to still have the possible sanction of criminal charges and imprisonment hanging over their heads. Why? Firstly because I don’t believe a court in this country would convict a doctor who really did something like that out of compassion but I want doctors thinking of doing it for other reasons to think twice – especially if there is the possibility a friend or family member could bring a complaint. Secondly it’s because I want doctors themselves to be able to fall back on the law if they are coming under pressure to kill someone when they don’t believe it appropriate.

So what are the harms I believe legalising euthanasia would cause?

My secondary concern is that I don’t think Australian institutions are anywhere near robust enough to provide safeguards against its abuse in the face of the pressures that would come from legalisation – and the inevitable bureaucratisation and commercialisation that would follow. There are supposed to be safeguards to prevent police and prison officers from murdering people but in the entire history of federation no cop or screw has ever been convicted of unlawful killing while on duty. No murder convictions, no manslaughters, no negligent homicides. Not one.

Dignitas CEO Ludwig Minelli blatantly flaunts Swiss laws restricting assisted suicide to the terminally ill who are certified to be of sound mind as well as laws against profiting from assisted suicide but Swiss authorities are unable or unwilling to stop him. I do not believe Australian authorities would be any more effective in reining in abuses of euthanasia by medical authorities and nursing home operators. Already Australian nursing homes prematurely kill up to 6,000 Alzheimer’s sufferers every year through the inappropriate off label abuse of neuroleptic drugs for patient control purposes and regulators do nothing to stop them.

But my primary concern is that by mainstreaming euthanasia Australia will be mainstreaming the arguments of many euthanasia advocates that people should be prepared to die to avoid ‘being a burden’ upon others.

As with Dame Mary Warnock in the UK, Dr Philip Nitschke is constantly trying to start a public debate to the effect that euthanasia should be employed to reduce the financial impost the terminally ill place on the health system. He also advocates the view that upon reaching retirement age every Australian should be sent a free suicide kit by the government – a macabre alternative to the traditional gold watch that would leave us in little doubt as to what our function as citizens should be.

While few euthanasia advocates are as fanatical – if not psychopathic – as Philip Nitschke the argument of ‘not wanting to be a burden’ is one of the most frequently raised in favour of euthanasia. What sort of society would we live in if health care professionals and nursing home attendants were to adopt the attitude that the extremely ill should ‘not be a burden’ by continuing to exist? If Dame Mary Warnock’s view that dementia sufferers ‘have a duty to die’ was to become the accepted norm?

While most euthanasia advocates are not monsters of the order of Warnock, Nitschke and Minelli there seems little doubt that the field attracts the sort of people you definitely would not want to give authority over the vulnerable.

I must admit a vested interest here.

I am a mixed race disabled person of Aboriginal descent. I am painfully aware of the attitude prevalent in many that people such as myself should simply allow kind-hearted progressives to ‘smooth our dying pillow‘ then we should just curl up and die. During my periods of suicidality it was an attitude that also seemed quite persuasive to me and had it been any more widespread and forcefully made I doubt I would be here typing these words. It is no surprise to me that during the Northern Territory’s brief flirtation with euthanasia it was remote Aboriginal communities – denied adequate health care, particularly dialysis services – who protested most loudly against its legalisation. Maybe us blackfellas just like being a burden on the tax dollars of all you empowered middle class whites who have little to fear from the dysfunctional institutions you have imposed upon this country.

If you are suicidal you have my sincere sympathy. If you think you should die rather than be a burden that is surely your call, but I urge you to consider whether it is a burden or a privilege to be able to assist someone who really needs help.

If you or anyone you care about finds themselves trapped in our medical bureaucracy, kept alive against their will, prevented from returning home to die in familiar surroundings despite having a legal ‘right’ to do so, you have my best wishes in your fight against the system.

If you are not yet in either of those situations I ask you to consider what legalised euthanasia might mean for those Australians not as privileged as yourself who may not yet be ready to die, but who will be facing a ‘helpful, caring’ system that provides a quick, convenient fast track to death.

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From → politics

15 Comments
  1. Rex permalink

    I, for one, have always found it hard to decide as to who really deserves to die or live – in times when it is apparent that a person’s body and mind have degenerated. Spiritually, it is said that it is better not to tweak with anyone because if there is worth to the belief that soul is powerful, then it must at least decide its own fate. It should live if it chooses or die if it chooses. If this is logically true that soul is powerful, then we must leave people as they are.

    Coincidentally, I was reading in newspaper today that Holland is doing very well with Euthanasia with around 5000 people dying each year.

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    • I don’t know if I believe the soul can choose to live or die. In fact I don’t know that I believe in a soul. I’m a bit Buddhist that way – anatta and all that.

      I sure agree it should be up to the individual as much as possible, though.

      But the fact is none of us are really individuals. We are all conditioned by the communities around us, including into our own self-image. What I don’t want to see is a community that starts conditioning the old, sick and disabled into the idea they are a burden who’d be better off dead.

      I’m not sure what criteria you’d use to say Holland is ‘doing very well’ with euthanasia but I agree that it doesn’t seem to have become absolutely obscene about it like the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. But my understanding is that even after legalisation there are still just as many unauthorised euthanasias in Holland as there have ever been and that in most cases the patient has not consented or even been asked (usually, presumably, because they are in no condition to do so). So I guess if you measure the success of euthanasia by how many people are being euthanased whether they want it or not Holland is doing very well, yes.

      One of the things that gets to me about the white middle class Australian euthanasia lobby is that they point to places like Holland and Oregon and say “Look! Most people who have qualified for euthanasia don’t even take it. It’s just for peace of mind”. What they don’t point at are the people who neither qualified for nor asked for euthanasia who still get it nor the elderly people who have so little peace of mind they won’t even seek necessary medical attention for fear they will be euthanased.

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  2. Rex permalink

    Why did I capitalise ‘e’ in euthanisia? *confused*

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  3. You do raise very valid objections – more than anything that we can’t count on institutional safeguards to stop abuse of legal euthanasia. However, we can’t count on the government not to come after providers who skirt the laws and assist with a peaceful death. Rather than full legalization, perhaps the best option is some form of limited liability for people who aid in assisted suicide.

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    • However, we can’t count on the government not to come after providers who skirt the laws and assist with a peaceful death. Rather than full legalization, perhaps the best option is some form of limited liability for people who aid in assisted suicide.

      We can’t count on the government for anything, but the fact is that in my living memory there has never been an Australian doctor dragged before the courts for assisting a peaceful death – though I am assured it happens quite frequently and it has happened to family members of mine. However there were two members of Philip Nitschke’s euthanasia lobby group, Exit Australia, who were brought before the court for killing Graeme Wylie – the elderly, demented husband of one of them. An investigation showed they had altered his will in their own favour shortly before killing him and they went down for manslaughter (it also showed his wife had a new lover in another country she had been promising to join soon, but the jury wasn’t allowed to hear that evidence).

      And that’s what we need. The fear in people’s minds that if they are killing a sick person for reasons other than compassion they will be investigated as potential criminals.

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  4. I have mixed feeling about this..since I did technically suffer the worse pain known to mankind for 60 solid months..

    ON the other hand…if euthanasia had been available and I had no one to convince me they loved me so much not to let me go..I would have certainly took that alternative..

    Or even doused my self with gasoline and caught the first match available..that was a less painful alternative at the time when the pain was at it’s highest..per what i perceived IT as..

    So..I don’t know..I do believe in taking the path to the least harm for the whole..

    And there are many people who might die who would otherwise..maybe..have the best life imaginable as I experience now..

    But on the other hand i don’t think I would want to see anyone suffer that couldn’t handle what I eventually accepted as hell…

    I’m glad I don’t have to be the one to make this decision..

    And..it will be some time to come before there is any chance of this happening in the US..as it is far behind Australia in many area..particularly gun control..but that’s another area of interest for me..particularly..so i better not digress..

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    • Well like I said I definitely support the right to kill yourself – though I’d advise a rope over a can of gasoline, despite the latter’s excellent religious symbolism.

      In your case there’s would have been no legalised euthanasia system in the world that could have helped you because they all take a month or more to clear the bureaucratic hurdles.

      OTOH, if a doctor had just kept increasing the morphine until it killed you he would not be breaking the law (in Australia at least) as long as the primary rationale was the relief of your pain.

      So I think legalised euthanasia would be no improvement on what we’ve already got except for the tiny proportion of people who want to die but are too debilitated already to do it themselves.

      Of course there’s some who want to die (or at least say they do) who simply don’t have the physical courage to commit suicide, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for them to get a doctor to do it for them.

      I would support the availability of lethal suicide drugs through pharmacists but of course they’d have to be regulated in some way to stop them from being used as poisons. One good start would be if they had a very strong and distinct smell and flavour to stop them from being hidden in food or drink.

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  5. Catherine permalink

    Reblogged this on How my heart speaks and commented:
    Read this

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  6. Catherine permalink

    Hard one

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  7. Hanging is not a reliable way to kill oneself…

    I researched the issue in minute detail..there is no easy..self style..way out…that is sure to work..

    The ones that work are very painful.

    But overall I lean toward your opinion I think..for me..that is..

    I cannot ever imagine killing myself..NOW.

    What hurts does make a person stronger..but I did not always feel that way..

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  8. cheryllovesfood permalink

    I have no opinion on the matter, but I do think your points are valid, at least to me. I also think this was a very well written blog.

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  9. Nadia permalink

    of course from because I’m religious I do not believe in the right of killing your self, only because I do not even believe that my body belongs to me or is my property so I can do what so ever I want to do with it.

    considering the issue about whether there is a soul or not I think that it’s impossible to believe that there is no soul. no matter how you want to define or understand the word soul, there is something that leaves the human body when he dies other wise it would be possible to bring a healthy person who might have died from a shock or what ever back to life. but it’s not!
    anyway I’m not familiar with the idea that Buddhists don’t believe in a soul, as far as I know they do very much believe in souls.
    killing your self is kind of absurd, cause at the moment you think of killing your self I can imagine all the problems you think you have appear absurd too… there is nothing that deserves to die, and honestly especially for a person who does not believe in a life after death why would he kill him self? deleting you existence seems so not logical to me, cause then you are just gone… i bet that everyone who has killed him self regret it on second before they died… of course being religious and killing your self sounds even more stupid 😄 it does not make sense at all.
    but I do think that wishing to die because of great physical pain you are feeling like being sick, this is a whole other thing.

    back to the topic about euthanasia I think that it should not be allowed if a person lies in a coma cause you have no right to decide about a person who can’t speak up.
    but I think if a person is only living because they are pumping oxygen in his lungs and using something that his heart continue to beat and maybe while he is even brain death then here I think we can have a second thought.
    and I’m sorry that I wrote like a whole post here but there is so much to discuss ^^’

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    • I don’t really know what will happen to me when I die much less what might happen to others.

      I know how bad it got for me but I don’t know how bad it gets for others.

      I chose to live but I respect the choice of others.

      But being able to buy your own suicide or have it done under public health?
      That’s dragging everyone else into what’s really the most personal decision you can make.

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      • Nadia permalink

        honestly when you can work as sexworker, like you can “legally” be a prostitute, and you can legally do some surgeries to transfer your self into some other creature like a tiger or what so ever, then why do is only buying and legalizing your own suicide so unbelievable…
        democracy has proven to fail cause honestly humans are stupid in putting rules for them selves …
        it’s also ironic that you can legalize killing people because it’s organized in a war form under the leadership of some government but everything that is lead by non governments is terrorism…
        people will legalize everything they might legalize pedophilia if the majority believes in it…
        as far as humans thinks of them selves as their own Gods nothing would stop them to legalize anything…
        and I don’t know if you mean with buying your suicide that they actually kill people or just stop supplying them with help to stay a life? did I miss something in you post? …
        are you talking about people actually killing others in hospitals? cause stopping aids to stay alive and giving them something to die are of course two different things.
        anyway I hope only good will happen to you after you die 🙂 ( not that I wish for you to die soon, but you know how it is we are all on that way 😛 )

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        • I’m all for legal suicide.
          We have it here in Australia.
          In theory at least.

          We also have the right to refuse medical treatment.
          In theory.

          In practice the medical or mental health bureaucracy often intervenes to deny those rights.

          I think they should be protected. Even for people with a ‘mental illness’.

          What I disagree with is having those bureaucracies (or a commercialised free market) providing ‘suicide’ for others.

          That’s what they’re trying to do in Australia now.
          Not enforce the existing ‘right’ to refuse treatment but introduce a new ‘right’ to be killed by the medical system.

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