Euthanasia is an ethical issue, a religious issue, a political issue and a social issue. Society also needs to debate more seriously than
it has so far the moral issues that underlie it, writes Professor Peter Sheehan, Vice-Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University
Euthanasia is a major ethical issue for Australian
society. Politically, there is great pressure to enact more permissive legislation. Not surprisingly, debate about the issue is in turmoil.
The moment one enters the euthanasia debate moral issues impinge.
Under what circumstances, if any, should doctors be allowed to sedate a suffering and dying patient to a point of unconsciousness and then allow the patient to expire? What about freedom of choice? And where does
the burden of proof lie in the matter of euthanasia?
Scholars at Australian Catholic University have argued that the key to the tragedy of human death is its finality. Legalising euthanasia means accepting
that someone’s decision today is a decision forever. Is it really compassionate to cut an individual’s life short, to deny him or her the chance to change their mind, to reflect further, to make fresh decisions
about dependent relationships?
The euthanasia question – whether it is murderous or humane – has confounded agreement in our society for years. It has gained its current political strength with the rise of
life-sustaining technologies that can not only keep many people alive, but can also prolong the process of death and make it more acute.
Professionals are divided. Certainly there are more care alternatives
available now to counter those who favour euthanasia. Health care professionals, the clergy and the general public are now much more aware of how painkillers can be used effectively and how depression can be treated
in terminally-ill patients.
For example, professionals now receive better training in palliative medicine and in how to communicate with terminally-ill patients.
But the question still arises: why
haven’t the professions formally endorsed euthanasia? I think the real reason is they want to avoid the legal consequences of the charge of murder.
This is relevant to the current legislation relating to
euthanasia and to how it might change. It also relates to the cost of health care. Maybe a higher level of awareness about what constitutes high-quality end-of-life care would reduce the underground practice of
The proponents of euthanasia would probably assert that such arguments are part of a misinformation campaign by the opponents of euthanasia. Fortunately, there is some common ground in that those
who favour euthanasia must also embrace the idea of good hospice care and effective pain control.
An interesting debate has arisen in the United States about the term ‘assisted suicide’. A US Supreme Court
ruling in the late 1990s prohibited assisted suicide but left the door open to a future claim of ‘right to aid’.
Stepping for the first time into the wrenching political and moral debate over doctor-assisted
suicide, the Supreme Court ruled that states might continue to ban such practices but suggested that the court system remain open to constitutional claims for assistance by dying patients in the future.
Assisted death in the United States (and probably in Australia) has moved underground in the way doctors predicted that it would and this has been so for many years. Critics hoped court rulings like the Supreme
Court ruling would discourage the ‘assisted suicide’ proponents. Importantly, the notion of assisted suicide implies that any persons involved do not have a right to a doctor’s help. This, in turn, focuses attention
on what some believe to be the best alternative to euthanasia – renewed efforts by the medical and nursing professions to humanise and improve care at the end of life, that is palliative care.
It also serves
to assert a salient moral principle – respect for the worth and dignity of human life.