‘On the brink’ of legal euthanasia

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Demonstrators hold signs during a May pro-life protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario. Photo: Chris Wattie, Reuters
Demonstrators hold signs during a May pro-life protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario. Photo: Chris Wattie, Reuters

I remember walking into a lecture one day and the lecturer saying: “Some people think that in order to be just, you must sometimes dispense with the law. They are wrong. The application of the law is the only thing that preserves justice.”

The more I reflect on that statement, the more I know it to be true.

Last week, the Victorian Parliament’s Legal and Social Issues Committee issued the final report of its inquiry into end-of-life choices.

Over the past year, the committee has received written and oral submissions, travelled overseas to jurisdictions where assisted suicide and euthanasia have been legalised, conducted research and more. At 444 pages, the report is comprehensive. Most of its 49 recommendations have been overshadowed by the final recommendation.

Recommendation 49 is titled “Victoria should legalise assisted dying” and the annexure to the report provides a framework for that legislation.

Given some of the other dangerous items of legislation and policy we have seen introduced in Victoria, I can’t imagine that the government will not consider the proposal seriously, so it will be necessary to discuss the proposal and assisted suicide in general in future columns as the Victorian Government considers its response.

What struck me at an initial read of the report was about how a rejection of the law – in the name of compassion – is what has brought us to this point.

Chapter 6 of the document provides an analysis of the legal framework surrounding end of life in Victoria. The report noted that while inciting, aiding and abetting suicide are illegal in Victoria, “consistent theme in case law is the remarkable degree of leniency shown to offenders, even though there is a clear violation of the criminal law”.

It went on to say that nobody prosecuted for assisted dying in Victoria has received prison time (even if they pleaded guilty, or were found guilty).

Offenders were given either a suspended sentence or a good behaviour bond.

Judges were quoted describing the convicted individuals in glowing terms. They spoke of them as loving, selfless and compassionate individuals rather than lawbreakers.

In discussing those who aid or abet suicide, Detective Inspector Mick Hughes of Victoria Police told the committee that you almost need to be in the room with the person, encouraging, inciting or taking an active part in it.

He told the committee of a doctor in Victoria whom police have “looked at for a long time” but determined that there was not sufficient evidence to prosecute the person.

Detective Hughes did not identify the person, but I imagine it is Dr Rodney Syme. In the same week the committee inquiry was commissioned, Dr Syme invited media to film him providing the illegal substance Nembutal to Ray Godbold, a patient with terminal cancer.

A year previously, he told ABC radio that he had given the same drug to Steve Guest, who used it to take his life.

Despite this, we are told that the evidence against him is insufficient. Is that the case?

Or is it possible that the failure to prosecute people like Dr Syme and to give custodial sentences to others who are involved in taking the life of another is because those involved in law enforcement – police, prosecutors and the judiciary – believe that the “just” or “compassionate” thing to do in these cases was to dispense with the law?

This blatant rejection of the law by those whose job should be to enforce it and not replace it with their own form of “morality” has led us to a place where a Parliamentary Committee can find no valid reason to maintain the law against killing another person.

“If the law was in line with community values,” they reasoned, “judges would have no problem enforcing it.”

The so-called “compassionate” response from judges has brought Australia once again to the brink of legalised euthanasia.

It has brought us to a point where we may, through our laws, tell people that they are better off dead.

Just last week Pope Francis called this a false compassion and he is right.

So often, we think we know better than the law. We dispense with the law in the name of compassion or, when it comes to Church law, in the name of “being pastoral.”

We think that the making of an exception in certain situations is the right thing to do. As much as I would love it to be true, it is not the case. Provided the law itself is a just one, we cannot ignore it in the pursuit of “justice”’

Once we start creating exceptions based on our subjective response to a matter, we make the law arbitrary.

And at a certain point in the future, someone will challenge us on why we have an arbitrary law in place at all. If we have made enough exceptions, we will not have a credible response to that challenge.

Related: Good palliative care – not euthanasia – is the answer