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The issue of dying

By David Palmer - posted Thursday, 26 June 2008


In Victoria this week, the Legislative Council was to have had the 3rd reading and vote on the Greens member, Ms Colleen Hartland MLC’s Medical Treatment (Physician-Assisted Dying) Bill 2008 (PDF 168KB). Perhaps indicating that she may not have the numbers, she has requested that the third reading be put back a week.

Having had an opportunity to read the Bill as well as Ms Hartland’s eloquent second reading speech, I would like to open up public debate on this matter of euthanasia, if only because there is so little appearing in main stream media at the present time.

The issue of dying, whether from a terminal condition or advanced incurable disease, is always something that tugs at our heart strings, particularly for family members and close friends.

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The preamble to the Bill speaks of a mentally competent adult person “suffering intolerably from a terminal or advanced incurable illness to exercise their right to end their life ...”

In an ideal world this may sound a compassionate thing, though to argue about “a right to end life” is to presume the thing desired. Not only that, but there is no historical precedent for such a right. None of the United Nations human rights instruments contain a “right to die”. They are all about the flourishing and development of each human individual, not the deliberate and orchestrated ending of an individual’s life.

The Bill claims to contain certain safeguards, something emphasised by Ms Hartland in her second reading speech. However, did Justice Menhennit, in his 1969 ruling on abortion, realise that his ruling would lead to one abortion to every three live births in Victoria a few decades later?

Ms Hartland spoke of the virtues of the State of Oregon legislation but fails to mention that, in the years 1994 to 2007, there were 89 proposals in the USA to legalise euthanasia in 22 states, and none succeeded. Oregon is the only state in America allowing legalised physician-assisted suicide. That this is so is due, in part, to the well-recognised under-funding of Oregon’s health care system. To commend the virtues of the Oregon legislation after only 10 years of operation, and as the solitary state permitting euthanasia in the USA, is unwise, to say the least.

A far more appropriate example to quote is Holland where euthanasia has been openly practised since 1973.

Overall, in Holland in 2005, there were about 12,660, or 9 per cent, of all deaths caused intentionally. A 2005 study showed that at least 50 per cent of patients killed under the Dutch euthanasia program were suffering from depression. A 1991 study showed that an average of three people a day underwent euthanasia without their knowledge or consent. Studies in 1991 and 1995 showed that, despite Dutch law requiring physicians to report physician-assisted death, the majority of deaths went unreported.

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While Ms Hartland’s Bill limits euthanasia to adults 18 years and older, in Holland children up to the age of 12, including newborns, may now be killed by lethal injection with parental consent. Liberalisation of the law due to presenting cases is inevitable over time. This is precisely the Dutch experience.

Is this what Victorians, including their Upper House parliamentarians desire for their state?

Could these parliamentarians pass Ms Hartland’s Bill and guarantee that none of these things now happening in Holland - a country where many elderly sick people are afraid to seek medical help because they fear being euthanised without their consent - would not happen in Victoria?

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About the Author

David Palmer is a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia.

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