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Euthanasia: the clergy and religious politicians are wrong

By David Swanton - posted Thursday, 17 February 2011


Senator Bob Brown’s Restoring Territory Rights (Voluntary Euthanasia Legislation) Bill 2010 will be debated soon in the federal parliament. If passed, the Bill will repeal the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, which removed the right of the Territories to legislate for euthanasia (a voluntary act, defined below). It will not legalise euthanasia.

Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Pat Power (Who can tell when it is right to die?, 8 February) recently argued against euthanasia, in response to my earlier article advocating support for euthanasia and Senator Brown’s Bill (Canberra Times, 31 Jan 2011). It is highly probable that he and many religious politicians will try to defeat Senator Brown’s Bill.

It is disturbing that an ACT, NT or Norfolk Island citizen, or any competent Australian citizen, could argue that Territorians should not have the same rights as Australians living in States to legislate for euthanasia.

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Bishop Power’s case against euthanasia is fundamentally flawed, based as it seems to be on the assumption that his religion’s views against euthanasia should be imposed on everybody, as I discuss later. There are also significant errors in his arguments.

Bishop Power regrettably quoted out of context my definition of euthanasia to suggest that bankrupt people could access euthanasia if they were depressed. Nothing could be further from the truth. I noted that there are many legislated means of ensuring euthanasia is voluntary, including having patients examined by a number of doctors, including a psychiatrist. Clearly doctors are engaged to examine patients with terminal illnesses, and not to attest to their bankruptcy.

Legislative models used overseas and proposed by euthanasia advocates only allow euthanasia as an option for articulate, lucid terminally ill people not suffering from clinically treatable depression. If an additional condition was required, terminally ill people could be required to place their names on a euthanasia register for six months before being permitted to request euthanasia.

The ACT Greens MLA, Amanda Bresnan, has proposed a legislative model involving a voluntary euthanasia board, and assessments by doctors (Canberra Times, 7 February). Such precautions are necessary and commonplace around the world to protect people whose minds might be easily swayed, and they are effective because such people would not have the mental resolve to convince a psychiatrist that their euthanasia decision was made voluntarily.

Euthanasia is defined as a deliberate act intended to cause the death of a patient, at that patient’s request, for what he or she sees as being in his or her best interests (often called active voluntary euthanasia). Clearly, euthanasia’s voluntary nature is implicit in this definition, and this is recognised by the 85% of Australians who support it. It is precisely the voluntary nature of euthanasia that makes it ethically right.

Bishop Power mistakenly disputed the popular support for euthanasia in Australia. If he had checked the Australia-wide poll conducted in 2009 by Newspoll he would have indeed discovered that 85% of those surveyed support the right of a “hopelessly ill patient, experiencing unrelievable suffering, with absolutely no chance of recovering” to ask for and gain assistance with a lethal dose­ (euthanasia). I would encourage Bishop Power to base his arguments on evidence.

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Despite the overwhelming public support for euthanasia, the voluntary nature of euthanasia still confounds euthanasia’s outspoken opponents: mostly religious politicians, leaders and zealots. They claim that euthanasia is not voluntary, that people would be coerced into a decision, and that people would be killed without their consent. The simple analogy “consensual sex is to rape as euthanasia is to murder” highlights the relationship that almost everybody comprehends: that consensual sex and euthanasia are voluntary and should be permissible.

It is patronising and arrogant to suggest that articulate, lucid individuals of sound mind are vulnerable and cannot make their own end-of-life decisions. Individuals can choose their own sexual partners, make financial decisions, write their wills, and even choose to have life support withdrawn, and without Bishop Power and religious politicians acting as their moral guardian.

If Bishop Power and religious politicians legitimately oppose euthanasia with appropriate legislative measures because they are concerned about a patient’s vulnerability, then they should also oppose the withdrawal of life support for terminally ill patients (currently legal and supported by everyone) because the same vulnerability concerns exist. But they don’t, and nor should they.

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About the Author

David Swanton is an ethicist, PhD scientist and director of Ethical Rights. He is also ACT Chapter Coordinator for Exit International.

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