Russell Crowe’s 2014 film, The Water Diviner, tells the true story of an Australian farmer who travelled to Gallipoli after World War I to search for his three sons, all soldiers with the Australian forces and all reported missing in action.
Spoiler alert: towards the end the father finds his eldest son, Arthur, still alive. Art tells his dad that after being wounded by the Turks his younger brother Henry bled out painfully for hours, until Art shot him dead at his request. Art’s anguish is evident and his action is portrayed sympathetically.
From the next world war comes the true story of two more Australian brothers, who enlisted together and fought side-by-side on the Kokoda Track in 1942. After Butch Bisset was severely wounded by Japanese gunfire, the platoon doctor could do nothing more than give him morphine. So Stan held him in his arms for six hours until he died.
They sat, “laughing, crying and remembering the good times of their childhood, the trouble they got up to as kids, and the times they played rugby together.” Butch faded in and out of consciousness, and the two shared one last song as Butch breathed his last.
Two different ‘brotherly’ responses to human suffering, both motivated by mercy, both attracting our sympathy. The first says that in the end it’s better to kill someone than let them suffer, especially if they ask for it. The second resists killing the suffering person but gives them love and care to the end.
The ‘VAD’ debate brings these two approaches into stark relief.
Suffering can’t lessen the value of a life
Euthanasia advocates tell heartrending stories to point in one clear direction. Euthanasia opponents tend to argue from moral principles and social consequences. The two sides end up talking past each other.
But these two stories, placed side by side, acknowledge that these are genuinely complex matters that leave us conflicted.
The story of the Bisset brothers does not deny the realities of physical, psychological and ‘existential’ suffering: but it reveals that such suffering cannot diminish the intrinsic value of life.
All choices cannot be equal
It does not deny the importance of personal freedom: but not all choices are equally responsible or worthy.
It is not lacking in compassion: it’s just that the response to suffering is a non-lethal one. It’s a position that seems to ask a lot of people–of those who are suffering, those caring for them, and the surrounding community.
New South Wales stands on a precipice. How to decide?
Not just a religious issue
One answer is that we must never play God or infringe the commandment not to kill. Some respond that I don’t believe in your god or his rules. Some say religious believers and beliefs should stay out of this.
But the view that human beings are special and their lives inviolable is no monopoly of believers. It’s common to international human rights instruments and most legal systems, to the pre-Christian Hippocratic Oath and the post-modern codes of medical associations. You don’t have to be religious to insist on the dignity of every human being and the clear line against intentional killing.
But the view that human beings are special and their lives inviolable is no monopoly of believers. It’s common to international human rights instruments and most legal systems, to the pre-Christian Hippocratic Oath and the post-modern codes of medical associations.
Many MPs agree, saying euthanasia is against their principles or beliefs, but that they are unwilling to impose these on others (despite the fact that those who do agree are willing to impose their views on others!). So they substitute their own judgment with a count of how many emails they’ve received.
Emotions and polls shouldn’t decide laws
Though their first duty is to protect the vulnerable and preserve the common good, they go with the emotional flow generated by stories of bad deaths without palliative care. But as the old saying goes, “hard cases make bad law”.
In the name of God and humanity: pull back from this precipice NSW!
This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 25 November 2021