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Margaret Somerville: post-truth, euthanasia and elder abuse – the storm

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The society that still cares: a woman displaced by flooding in Brisbane in 2011 is assisted by rescue personnel. Photo: CNS

Exploring the connections that can be made among three very recent, at first glance apparently unrelated, stories in the news can provide important insights and warnings.

These stories are that “post-truth” is the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year. That the Victorian Government will introduce an “assisted dying” bill in second half of 2017 which, if passed, would legalise physician-assisted suicide and in exceptional cases euthanasia. And that the Australian Law Reform Commission has just released a discussion paper which documents elder abuse in Australia and seeks ways to prevent it.


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Here’s how Wikipedia describes “post-truth” in relation to politics: “Post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics) is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it [truth] of “secondary” importance.” Or, one could add, of little or no importance at all.

In contemporary societies we increasingly use the prefix “post”: post-industrial; post-modern; post-feminist; post-religious; and so on, and now post-truth. We know what we were, we know we are no longer that, but we don’t yet know what we are becoming or now are.

Words are the tools of both truth and lies, so words matter. Nowhere is this truer than in the euthanasia debate.

The euthanasia debate

Word changes can be subtle and nuanced. So, for instance, when, as has happened in promoting the legalisation of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, more words are used to describe something that already had a name – euthanasia has become “physician assisted dying” and even the word death is dropped – we should know that we are being manipulated and something is being concealed. What is concealed is the intentional infliction of death.

The strongest case for the legalisation of euthanasia is made at the level of the suffering individual who wants to die when and how they choose. Andrew Denton makes the case for legalising euthanasia in this way in describing his father’s death. We feel compassion for his father and Mr Denton for the suffering they both endured and our hearts rightly go out to them.

In a post-truth society feelings matter more than facts, the heart rules the head. So the facts about the larger impact of legalising euthanasia – what it will mean for healthcare institutions, professions and professionals; how it will damage foundational societal values, such as respect for human life in general and the prohibition on intentionally killing another human being; the impact in the future of normalising euthanasia – are ignored or even denied.

Even hard factual evidence is rejected: In Canada the courts accepted the pro-euthanasia claim that in the Netherlands and Belgium, where euthanasia is legal, there was no “logical slippery slope” (the situations and persons eligible for euthanasia expand rapidly and very substantially once it is legalised) or “practical slippery slope” (euthanasia is carried out in breach of the law, especially on vulnerable people), when the evidence is clearly otherwise, as has been recognised by the Irish Supreme Court and most recently the Supreme Court of South Africa.

We can question whether the current “progressive values” stance of giving priority to individual autonomy over upholding values, such as respect for life, needed to protect the common good, means that we have become a narcissistic society, one focused just on individuals’ claims, and that the denial of facts which would cause us to reject those claims is a “narcissistic unawareness”.

I hasten to add here that I am not denying the importance of feelings, they are one of the central ways of “human knowing”, but facts are, at the least, equally important, not least because good facts are essential for good ethics and good ethics is essential for good law.

And so to the third story where facts are needed and serious concerns raised about abuse of vulnerable people, namely, the elderly.

Elder abuse

Here’s a 12 December 2016 ABC website headline: Elder abuse inquiry calls for power of attorney changes to stop children ripping parents off

The post continues, “A national register of enduring powers of attorney should be established to prevent greedy children from using the document as a “licence to steal” from their elderly parents, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) says, referring to an ALRC discussion paper which is part of its inquiry into elder abuse, which includes elderly persons being victims of financial fraud. The paper notes “the potential for pressure and coercion in setting up the instruments [the powers of attorney]” and that “early inheritance syndrome” is on the rise.

“With Australians living longer than ever before, the ALRC inquiry heard many examples of children who were impatient to get their hands on their parents’ money and tried to claim their inheritance before they were entitled to it.

This is often described as “early inheritance syndrome”.

“It’s as if the current generation wants it now and somehow they justify that it’s okay to take mum or dad’s money right now,” said Aged and Disability Advocacy Australia CEO, Geoff Rowe.”

There are no concrete statistics on the prevalence of elder abuse in Australia, but a 2016 research report to the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department states that:

… at the international level, the WHO (2015) recently reported that estimated prevalence rates of elder abuse in high- or middle-income countries ranged from 2% to 14% … and that the perpetrators are likely to be related to the victim… [and] one study suggests that neglect could be as high as 20% among women in the older age group (Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, 2014). Older women are significantly more likely to be victims than older men, and most abuse is intergenerational (i.e., involving abuse of parents by adult children), with sons being perpetrators to a greater extent than daughters.

Combined effect

So consider in a “post-truth” society the combined effect in relation to elderly persons of “pressure and coercion”, “early inheritance syndrome”, abusers’ self-justification of the abuse, 2% to 14% of elderly persons being victims of abuse, and women being more at risk than men, in the context of legalised euthanasia. At the least, we should have second thoughts about whether legalisation is a good idea.

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