Where does euthanasia leave people with a disability?

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“Surely, with all the safeguards in the Euthanasia Bill, we can be confident nothing untoward will happen. Australia’s not that sort of place.”

It’s been said many times, not just by enthusiastic advocates of ‘voluntary assisted dying’, but also by journalists and ordinary people.

It seems plausible enough. If the COVID lockdowns have shown us anything, it’s that we are remarkably compliant. So if the law says V.A.D. is OK we’ll use it, but moderately, and we won’t overstep the mark. The slippery slope talk is surely too pessimistic. It’s worked OK overseas, it will work even better here.

But hold on: are we Australians really the model citizens we like to think we are when it comes to the disabled and debilitated, the frail elderly and the dying?

According to research commissioned by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety “around 39.2 per cent of people living in Australian aged care facilities experience elder abuse in the form of neglect, emotional abuse or physical abuse”. And as for what happens to the elderly still living at home…

we should not imagine that Australians are universally respectful of elders…

The stories heard by the Aged Care Royal Commission were many and harrowing. Old people terribly neglected. Some humiliated, intimidated, coerced. Physically or chemically restrained. Threatened with abandonment and loneliness if they don’t do as they’re told. Relatives, friends, complete strangers exploiting their weakness to get their assets. Carers hurting as well as caring.

Of course, that’s not everyone’s experience. Many frail elderly are reverenced and loved at home or in institutions. There are better and worse facilities. Most elderly people fear the loss of independence that comes with moving into aged care, but their loved ones do their best to find them a good situation when the time comes.

Indigenous Australians and other traditional cultures in Australia reverence elders highly. Sadly, that can’t be said for our mainstream culture. The elderly are commonly portrayed as confused, unpredictable, figures of fun. Or worse, as a useless burden upon themselves and everyone else. Some are ‘warehoused’ in institutions where they receive not a single visitor.

My point is this: we should not imagine that Australians are universally respectful of elders.

How about the disabled? Well, the ongoing Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has heard that “64% of people with disability report experiencing physical violence, sexual violence, intimate partner violence, emotional abuse and/or stalking”.

In addition to violence, people with disability are much more likely to suffer financial disadvantage or to have difficulty gaining access to services.

Many awful stories have come to the ears of the Disability Royal Commission. Guardians of a man with multiple disabilities told the inquiry they received an anonymous letter calling him a piglet and warning that his life was in danger. Another family told how their uncommunicative son was subjected to surgery without adequate anaesthesia.

The Commission has heard of people locked away for years without contact with family or community. Others punished in their school or other institution for the disability. Some bullied, neglected, sexually abused. And we know that people with disabilities were amongst the last to receive the COVID vaccines.

The Disability Royal Commission has flagged systemic problems that leave most people with disability deprived of essential supports and at risk of harm.

Again, that’s not everyone’s experience. There are plenty of people with disabilities who are reverenced and loved by their families, carers, school or work colleagues. The NDIS, whatever its failings, has been an enormous step forward.

Again, some cultures are better with the disabled than others. But ask anyone living with disability and they’ll have stories to tell of where our mainstream culture has let them down, of times they have felt coerced or unsafe.

Again, Australia is no paradise for the disabled and our society is not free of abuse, neglect and exploitation of such people.

Now consider the moves to legalise euthanasia in New South Wales Parliament against the backdrop of these enduring bad attitudes and behaviours towards the aged and disabled.

No doubt some elderly or disabled people want this law. They are confident they have the autonomy, voice or support to exercise this new right freely, with truly informed consent, free of manipulation or intimidation. Good for them.

But two recent Royal Commissions have told us that vast numbers of elderly and disabled people are vulnerable to manipulation, intimidation or worse. Add euthanasia to the mix and we have a new—lethal—form of violence to add to what these people already suffer in our community.

V.A.D. is supposed to be all about compassion and freedom. But its undesired side-effect will be that many who presently suffer will suffer more, and many who are already vulnerable will be less free.

We hear harrowing stories of people having bad deaths, more often than not without adequate palliative care but occasionally even with the best care. But how about the stories of elderly, handicapped and other vulnerable individuals? Don’t they matter also?