Euthanasia question needs wider discussion

An excellent article from Dr Andrew Cameron. From SMH.

Australians are overwhelmingly in favour of euthanasia. Who can resist the will of the people? So goes the pro-death argument for this sweeping social change.

A much quoted 2009 survey, commissioned by the pro-euthanasia group Dying with Dignity, reports 85 per cent support for the practice. As is always the case, support is more muted among the over-65s: the prospect of death, it turns out, does concentrate the mind.

Even so, the survey elicited more than 80 per cent support among each age bracket of its 1201 respondents.

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There is just one problem: it consisted of a telephone poll asking a single leading question. Interviewers emphasised the syllables as printed: ”If a hopelessly ill patient, experiencing unrelievable suffering, with absolutely no chance of recovering asks for a lethal dose, should a doctor be allowed to provide a lethal dose, or not?”

Try answering that while you are cooking the dinner or bathing the kids. The question is wildly emotive (”hopelessly”, ”unrelievable suffering”, ”absolutely no chance”).

We hate the thought of death and pain, and in the moment, most of us would simply respond out of shock and without much thought. The question leverages our preference to politely say ”yes” instead of ”no”.

Its assumptions are also completely contestable. Illness does not have to be ”hopeless”, and suffering is often very relievable. Where euthanasia is legal, more ask for it due to loneliness than pain, or so as not to burden another. The survey, therefore, distracts us from other options.

It does not ask, ”Would you change your mind if the lonely had companions, and the fearful someone to listen?” Nor does it ask, ”What would enable people to accept care without shame?” Nor does it ask, ”Would you like to see more funding for pain management research and practice?”

We are seeing a deliberate blurring of the lines at the very time society needs clarity on such a serious and far-reaching measure. The deliberate killing of a person in euthanasia must be distinguished from the withdrawal of treatment, and from management of symptoms at the end of life.

I write as a Christian. Before we hare off on the usual mantra that I am ”imposing my values” – as if those who support euthanasia are not – here is a case where the Bible’s prohibition of killing innocent humans is a no-brainer, even if we agree about little else. For this prohibition generates a community that upholds and cares for others at their weakest and most vulnerable. The prohibition against deliberate killing of innocent human life is what impels us to research and practise good palliative care.

It enables trust within patient-carer and patient-relative relationships. It frees the ill person from constantly having to interrogate the hidden motives of those around them, and allows them to accept their care without shame. It says to all of us that, burden or not, we can stop being productive, and allow others to help us.

Without this prohibition, we will see a creeping expansion of candidates for euthanasia. By the time voluntary euthanasia was legalised in the Netherlands in 2002 you didn’t have to be terminally ill to qualify: ”mental torment” sufficed. Those in that country who support euthanasia now argue that elderly people should have the option if they are simply ”tired of life”.

At the other end of life, a Dutch hospital published the Groningen Protocol in 2005 for euthanising newborns – nothing ”voluntary” there.

This creeping expansion simply corrodes a society’s will to fund care and cures for the poor, the elderly, the depressed, the disabled and the otherwise vulnerable.

There are far more pressing matters for our limited political will and energy, if only we could get to them, such as indigenous health.

Meanwhile, we are saddled with the prospect of a subversion of healthcare that deserves no place on any government’s agenda.

If Greens politicians believe voluntary euthanasia is the public policy priority of first importance for the new Parliament, so be it. But this total about-face on a central principle of healthcare deserves an election mandate; or at very least, some appropriately convened committee of parliamentary inquiry. A phone call and a badly worded question over dinner does not quite cut it.

Dr Andrew Cameron is chairman of the Social Issues Executive for the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

 

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