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Euthanasia: Crossing the clear bright line

by | Nov 2, 2016

By Paul Russell, Director, HOPE Australia

Victorian Health Minister, Jill Hennessy

Victorian Health Minister, Jill Hennessy

Dutch journalist, Gerbert van Loenen once observed about euthanasia in his homeland that, ‘Making euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide legal started a development we did not foresee. The old limit ‘thou shalt not kill’ was abandoned, a new limit is yet to be found.’

When we abandon the principle that the law (in this case the criminal code prohibitions on homicide) protects all of its citizens equally, as van Loenen observes, drawing a new line is arbitrary. More than that; it is likely to shift further in ways that perhaps the Dutch did not foresee but that we, at least, can now reflect upon, given their experiences.

Not that we necessarily need to look halfway across the globe to observe the phenomenon.

In South Australia only in this last week we saw that, notionally at least, something like half of the members of the House of Assembly seemed willing to support a bill that would have made euthanasia available to any adult who claimed that they were experiencing ‘unbearable and hopeless suffering.’

No, we do not have euthanasia on the statute books. So how, you ask, is this an example of van Loenen’s thesis?

South Australia has been the epicenter of euthanasia debate with something like 14 or 15 bills introduced over the last two decades–some of them simultaneously in both chambers. None of them have been as extreme as the bill mentioned.

In hindsight, now that the bill seemingly will not progress further, the mover and the euthanasia lobby that supported it may now reflect that their project was overly ambitious–that they are running well ahead of the zeitgeist.

And so it was. What shocked me, however, was the level of support it did receive. Five or ten years ago such a regime would have been dismissed far more easily.

The bill would have created a starting point for euthanasia similar to the Dutch law and almost identical to the Belgian statute. Yet the public discourse was largely framed around what we might call the ‘classic cases’ at the very end of life. Replete with personal stories, we were told, both implicitly and explicitly, that these were the kind of cases the bill was designed for. As with the Dutch law, according to van Loenen, there was a ‘devil in the detail’ in this bill that would provide for euthanasia in situations that the public could not foresee.

The question we need to be asking, always, is not ‘who is the bill designed for?’ but ‘what will the bill allow?’ There is clearly public support for the idea of euthanasia, as evidenced in the polls, but the detail seems to escape scrutiny.

Such was the campaigning strategy adopted by Andrew Denton, his campaign called ‘Go Gentle’ and his co-belligerents, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation. They jointly created an on-line campaign tool called ‘BetheBill’ where people could register to ‘BetheBill’ using their social media profiles. The automated structure would replace the pronoun ‘person’ in the text of the failed bill with their own name and send a copy of the thus amended bill to every South Australian member of parliament.

Nowhere does the ‘BetheBill’ website explain to the potential supporter that the bill in question would allow for euthanasia for any adult. All it says before a supporter clicks through to make it happen is:

‘One day you, or someone you love, may be dying and want this choice. No Australian should be left to die in unrelievable pain.’

It plays on the public perception that euthanasia would only ever be for a few ‘hard cases’.

And so, email in boxes of members of parliament were clogged, for some time, with virtually identical emails from people who had no real idea of what they were supporting. That many of these ‘BetheBill’ supporters came from interstate or overseas or were from fake Facebook profiles such as that of ‘Desmond Tutu’ (who apparently lives in Sydney and uses the profile picture of Bozo the Clown) registered a level of cynicism and annoyance with a number of MPs.

In hindsight we cannot avoid the conclusion that all of this was over-reach; a misjudgment of the ability of parliamentarians to assess the true situation – even in the face of what seemed like a tsunami of public and media support.

What it does tell us, very clearly, is that–regardless of whatever minimalist approach is presented for debate–what the movers really want is so much more.

Victorian Health Minister, Jill Hennessy warned euthanasia supporters of this kind of over-reach behavior recently in regards to what we are led to believe is the inevitable tabling [introduction] of a euthanasia and/or assisted suicide bill in the Victorian Parliament sometime in the near future.

Under the headline: Euthanasia reform: ‘Go softly or law will fail’, the Australian article framed the story this way:

Victorian Health Minister Jill Hennessy has warned radical ­euthanasia activists that any proposed assisted-suicide laws will be moderate, to enable broad community support and avoid failure because of a scare campaign.

Ms. Hennessy said the Greens and the Sex Party should be “sensible and open-minded” if ­euthanasia laws were introduced to the Victorian parliament, ­imploring the minor parties not to scupper the reform on the pretence of ­policy purity.

“To not do so would be an act of revisionism designed to make an important first step fail; it is not about you,” Ms. Hennessy said.

“Politicians need to ask themselves: is it about being pure or is it about saying ‘let’s get the best ­result we can’?”

But, once again, the euthanasia lobby cannot help itself; it cannot contain its enthusiasm in the wave of media support that has clouded the debate in Victoria as it has in South Australia.

Recommendation 49 of the Victorian Parliamentary Committee Report on ‘end-of-life choices’ tabled in July calls for a law for people, “suffering from a serious and incurable condition which is causing enduring and unbearable suffering” and that these persons must be “at the end of life (final weeks or months of life)”.

Dr. Rodney Syme

Dr. Rodney Syme

Dr. Rodney Syme wrote recently to the Victorian Health Minister on behalf of the Victorian pro-euthanasia lobby, calling for an extension to these terms to include people who have an ‘advanced incurable illness’; in other words, not simply those who are clearly close to dying.

Syme’s logic is internally consistent and compelling if, in fact, the aim of such legislation is to relieve suffering. This is the same sort of argument put to the Belgian people regarding child euthanasia in 2013 and is the same argument circling in Holland at the moment in regards to proposals for child euthanasia and euthanasia for people who are ‘tired if life’.

But there’s a significant difference between the Dutch and Belgian examples (above) and what Syme is presenting and what was presented in the bill in South Australia. The Dutch and the Belgians already have euthanasia on the statute books. Arguments for incremental extensions are easier to make once the beachhead is established.

Returning to van Loenen’s observations, it should be obvious to anyone that once we abandon the equal protection of the law for every citizen from acts of homicide and assisting in suicide, wherever we choose to draw the line next will not have the same holding force as the criminal code.

We will have created exceptions that will later be tested by arguments such as those put by Syme; exceptions that will further erode the protection of the law, replacing it with the arbitrary decisions of individual doctors who, in effect, will become the law.

Editor’s note. This appeared on Mr. Russell’s blog and is reposted with permission.

Categories: Euthanasia