By Dr Patrick McArdle
By year’s end each state and territory, with the possible exception of the Northern Territory will have enacted legislation to enable euthanasia. No bill actually uses that term – instead they emphasise that it is voluntary and that the person is already dying. The ACT is currently considering such a bill through an Inquiry. Let there be no doubt, the Bill will pass and by the end of 2025 people in the ACT will be dying by their own hand or through the actions of a health professional.
The Bill before the Assembly has three areas which are novel in the Australian context: there are no residential requirements – any connection with the ACT is sufficient and a waiver may be sought for those whose connection seems tenuous; there will be no requirement for a terminal illness or prognosis of a time of death – the person simply has to have a condition that is “advanced, progressive and expected to cause death” along with the person believing that they are or may suffer intolerably, in other words all the criteria of old age; it will not be necessary to have two medical practitioners involved in the determination of eligibility – two registered health practitioners will be sufficient.
The basis claimed for these novel provisions in the ACT Bill and some further options which have been indicated as being part of the first Review of the Bill should it become law, is compatibility with the ACT Human Rights Act. In its submission to the Legislative Assembly Select Committee Inquiry, the ACT Human Rights Commission takes up a number of these additional issues – calling for the removal of the age restrictions; further provisions to address the lack of or loss of capacity to make a decision on euthanasia; and, reduced oversight and reporting requirements. The reason for these additional proposals is that young people and those suffering from a lack of capacity or dementia have a right to receive health care without discrimination!
Part of the absurdity of the various pieces of legislation about euthanasia is that they describe it as health care. Health care seeks to heal, cure, sustain and relieve suffering, yes, but not to kill. The first ethical precept of health care is “first, do no harm.”
In almost every situation our society seeks to offer special protections to the vulnerable, especially to minors and those lacking capacity. Yet, here is the ACT Human Rights Commission arguing it is discriminatory not to kill young people or those who cannot make choices for themselves. Does this sound right to anyone?
In the explanatory memorandum for the legislation, the process of killing someone or enabling them to kill themselves is described as a ‘safe, effective and accessible process’. In what other circumstances would we suggest that the ingestion of a lethal substance with the intent of causing death was “safe”?
The ACT Human Rights Commission is not alone in endorsing the state-sanctioned killing of citizens; neither is it alone in calling for fewer ‘restrictions’ (what might in another context be called, ‘protections’). These types of legislation are being enacted without much objection – because, I suspect that, as a community, we have a diminished care factor: “what you choose to do is your business and it has nothing to do with me”. It seems we are content to allow those who, due to suffering and infirmity, believe their life is no longer tolerable to choose to end their lives. Instead of seeking means to limit or address the suffering, as a society we seem willing to turn away from those in need.
Any serious understanding of human rights is not predicated on individuality or personal choice, but on the communal obligations that apply to us all to uphold the dignity of each person. The Church, for example, supports and upholds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Rights under this international convention are shared, communal rights. Such rights are predicated on your being human. They are not contingent on your having a particular quality or attribute, for instance autonomy or intellectual capacity.
The application of rights imposes an obligation. For instance, if you have a right to health care or education, I have an obligation to assist in delivering that – the rights and the obligations are communal. Hence, we have public education and health systems because everyone has a right to these and we all have an obligation to provide them, generally through taxation.
It is a bizarre notion of human rights that is predicated simply on an expressed choice – not even necessarily a timely choice but one potentially made years in advance. However, in its submission, the ACT Human Rights Commission is arguing that choices made well in advance of a lack of competence or being made by minors should bind the community and enable state-sanctioned killing.
These proposals seem odd to me – but then it seems odd that we would view killing as an acceptable response to illness and disease.
Dr Patrick McArdle is the chancellor of the Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn