Editorial: Euthanasia is the rupture we must not accept

Reading Time: 3 minutes
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Victoria may become the first state in Australia to make it legal to kill another person for medical reasons (and NSW has its own proposed legislation).

Strangely, one thing which has largely confused the debate around euthanasia in this country is a kind of amnesia or false dichotomy about why people either support or oppose the idea of medical killing. It goes something like this:

On the one hand are rigorists, usually religious, usually Christian, largely devoid of compassion and who oppose euthanasia on principle because of a particular moral code they have inherited but not thought about too much. Such people are deficient in compassion. Ultimately, they will insist that someone die in pain rather than allowing them to die peacefully with dignity. Such people have closed minds because they believe in a fearful God of wrath. These kinds of people prevent real moral progress from being achieved.

On the other hand, there are those who see a deeper dimension to human existence. These are people of compassion, empathy and tolerance, respectful of differences, opinions and choices in others’ lives and whose minds are not constricted by outdated moral codes no longer relevant to modernity. Compassionate people such as these see no problems with euthanasia.

This emotional logic develops quickly into a simplistic and often self-righteous false imperative: we either allow suffering to go untreated in a brutal indifference to the final realities of people’s lives or we can choose to be compassionate and give them peace in their final moments. And of course we will create safeguards to prevent abuse.

None of the above is, of course, true. But that none of it is true doesn’t appear to inform the debate. This is the power of the false dichotomy, the false choice that is endlessly reasserted by those in favour of euthanasia. Oddly, they refuse to debate what actually happens when euthanasia is introduced in other countries. They are remarkably silent on the deadly realities including the statistics we know to be true.

So what is true? In every country where euthanasia has been introduced (always on the basis that it will deliver compassion and end suffering) it has rapidly been abused and the definition of those who can be killed widens inexorably. In numerous cases, the power of decision is removed from victims. In the Netherlands, around 6000 people die via euthanasia every year – not all of them willingly.

In May last year a young woman who had been sexually abused between the ages of five and 15 and who consequently suffered PSTD, anorexia nervosa and hallucinations was euthanased by the state. Her death was a tragedy and a travesty at every level, starting with her sexual abusers and ending with her final abusers, the doctors and nurses who killed her because she had come to believe no-one could love her for who she was. The problem was that Netherlands law agreed with her.

Disability advocates protest Victorian euthanasia proposal (language warning)

The great Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote that transition from pre-October Russia to the new Communist dictatorship “was not a continuation of the spinal column, but a disastrous fracture that very nearly caused the nation’s total destruction”.

The legalisation of euthanasia in Australia is, for our nation, such a moment. If euthanasia is legalised in this country, it will be the equivalent of a disastrous rupture, a definitive point of turning away from being willing to help and care for those who suffer towards an official policy of ending their lives because they are a burden we do not want to carry any more. And doubtless, if we do, we will congratulate ourselves and call it all an act of mercy.